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Think Again: Ignoring Poverty and Hunger

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While secret taping sessions of a $50,000-per-person fundraiser have led to a media frenzy about arguments relating to the so-called 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax (but pay plenty of other taxes), most of these 47-percenters fall into categories such as the elderly, veterans, students, and young children. But the ones who continue to go undiscussed are the people who need help the most: those living in genuine poverty. To those who even remember the poverty problem in this country and the world, this comes as no surprise.
An eye-opening study from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting -- a national media watchdog organization -- finds almost no media coverage of poverty-related issues this election season.

The study's authors, Mariana Garces and Steve Rendall, note in its introduction that one of the extremely few media mentions of poverty came on an episode of the CBS Evening News in response to a mere 200-word report earlier in the episode, relating to a single quote from one of the presidential candidates (who, ironically, was expressing his lack of concern for those mired in poverty). The authors of the study quote CBS anchor Scott Pelley observing that, "All this talk today about poverty got us wondering just how many people in America live below the poverty line."

Indeed, all that talk was just about all there was. The study found that just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories that the authors examined considered the problem of poverty in any remotely substantive fashion. All told, PBS ran a single story. ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, NPR's All Things Considered, and Newsweek, when added together, ran none at all. The New York Times came in third with substantive information about poverty included in 0.2 percent of its election stories.

The choice -- and it is a conscious choice -- to ignore the problems facing poor Americans comes at a moment when those problems are not only multiplying -- as various forms of public assistance are being decimated in the wake of state and local budgetary crises -- but also as more and more people find themselves either teetering on the abyss of poverty or falling into it entirely.

Even before the financial crash of 2008, the nonpartisan Urban Institute found that more than half of all Americans (51 percent) experience poverty before reaching the age of 65. In 2010 poverty figures reached a nearly 20-year high, affecting more than 15 percent of the population and including as many as 46 million people. These figures were nearly 50 percent higher than they had been just 10 years earlier.

Another study published in 2011 by the Brookings Institution predicted that 10 million more Americans may be forced into the ranks of the poor by 2014. As one AP report put it, "The ranks of America's poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net."

This poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, is an annual income of less than $11,702 for an individual and $22,314 a year for a family of four. Even these figures likely underestimate the number, as the costs of housing, transportation, and child care have risen far faster than the formula for the Census calculation allows and hence eat up a much larger portion of poor people's income than is likely being measured. The Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study notes that the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University calculates that "families typically need an income of at least twice the official poverty level ($42,400 for a family of four) to meet basic needs."

In one of the few extensive mainstream print discussions to appear in connection with the election, New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall authored a lengthy column titled "Is Poverty a Kind of Robbery?," which used alternative measures to examine the phenomenon and appeared shortly after the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study was published.

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