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Media, Poverty and a Lack of Concern

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One of the great challenges faced by those working to combat poverty in the United States is the lack of interest in the subject demonstrated by popular media outlets. Aside from exciting opportunities for poverty combating projects like ours to post in inclusive publications like the Huffington Post, little news besides numbers on unemployment and home foreclosures reaches the headlines in most of our media. Without broader knowledge of the scope and nature of the problem of poverty, it is difficult to convince relevant parties to act to address it.

As far back as 2008, members of the progressive advocacy community who focus on poverty were decrying a lack of coverage of rising poverty levels by the media. Since that point, the problem has gotten much worse, but overall coverage remains limited to a few responsible and concerned news outlets. With some analysts suggesting that the most current data shows that as many as one in two Americans may qualify as "low income," one has to wonder why this has not become a "hot-button" topic for the media in a year where our citizens are looking forward to a presidential election.

One of the reasons for the lack of interest may be that poverty, unlike many of the other issues frequently approached in the media, lacks the obvious partisan and ideological confrontational appeal that many popular media outlets choose to focus on. The positions on dealing with poverty assumed by the two current front-runner presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are anything but inspirational and less than groundbreaking. With past candidate affiliations to investigate, non sequitur observations to make, ad hominem attacks to discuss, and highly subjective personal comparisons to make, which media outlet has time to press these candidates on something ancillary like poverty?

Though the reasons for popular media disinterest in the subject of poverty may be something of a mystery, the impact of their inattentiveness is not. While more people find themselves moving closer to losing their health coverage, homes, and even their life-sustaining daily foodstuffs, the topics that the media focuses on appear less relevant to their plight. In a year where many are already disappointed in the tone of our national political debates, seeing that neither candidate appears to have the issue of poverty on their radar does not inspire much reason for hope.

As programs like Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), and other related programs are cut, our media persists in opting to dedicate large chunks of their limited resources to covering issues like the Facebook I.P.O. from every conceivable and exploitable perspective. Oddly enough, few average Americans had sufficient liquid income to invest in Facebook, regardless of the excessive interest that the media demonstrated in it.

While every detail of the Trayvon Martin case is ceaselessly explored by the media, including every potential race-related angle, and every outrageous comment uttered by every opportunistic pundit, information on soaring rates of unemployment in communities of color, and other marginalized communities, goes without mention in those same media outlets. While information related to such tragic stories like the Trayvon Martin shooting is of critical importance to us all, the unprecedented movement of huge numbers of our population into deeper economic distress might be at least of equal interest to us -- were it mentioned in the news.

The rise in gang-related activity might be of interest to potential voters as well, if the media were actively engaged in letting them know that such activity has increased. There is a correlation between poverty and gang activity, but not as a reflection of any intrinsic qualities unique to people living in poverty stricken communities. Broader understanding of this complex subject might be fostered by more frequent and in-depth discussions of it in the major media outlets.

Poverty appears to be less popular as a subject for many media outlets than is the expanding number of billionaires. What is interesting to note about such coverage is that it rarely talks about the actual overall distribution of wealth in our society. The growth in the number of billionaires is not indicative of improving economic realities for most, but is actually only demonstrative of an increase in the concentration of wealth among a select few people.

This lack of perspective in reporting on the disparity between intense wealth and poverty could lead some less informed news consumers to believe that more people moving into the ranks of the super-wealthy must mean that economic opportunity in general is increasing. In actuality, working Americans have seen their income, as adjusted for inflation and other factors, falling for around three decades.

What is important to carry forward is that, in spite of the lack of media focus on the issue of poverty, government and business policy must be brought in line with the scope and nature of the problem. If we do not hear presidential candidates talking about specific and credible solutions to the problem, then it is likely not something that they see as urgent or worth addressing in a timely manner. Poverty is not an issue that will resolve itself, and ignoring it will have some dire consequences.

The popular media did a good job of covering some of those consequences in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Greece. While they may have described much of the unrest in those nations as "political crises," the people on the ground in those countries know that rising unemployment, economic austerity, homelessness, and rapidly rising food prices create intolerable poverty. Of course political oppression is always a factor, but people can often tolerate a loss of free speech or free elections a lot better than they can tolerate joblessness, hunger, untreated disease, and a lack of shelter. The media may reduce that to "politics," if they like, but it is actually just an evolution towards more widespread poverty. The violent unrest was just a natural consequence of the lack of attention paid to the rise in poverty in each nation. Just something to keep in mind while consuming the news.