Tag Archives: NewsHour

Media Mis-colors American Poverty, Undermining Response

Flickr/everyday@adventures

We’re at work on a project chronicling that since the early 1990s American working-class youth face declining chances of equal opportunity .

We were thus intrigued by a 8/20/12 PBS NewsHour story – “In Rhode Island, Reinventing Summer School to Prevent Kids’ Learning Loss” — concerning efforts to combat summertime achievement gaps.

But the visuals were highly troubling. While the intro to the story correctly reported that this was about poverty, not race, the pictures were virtually all of African American kids, giving the impression that most if not all of the poor in America are black.

We brought this to their attention and the education correspondent for the NewsHour, John Merrow. [He graciously admitted that the story could have been edited better and his take on the whole episode is on his “Learning Matters” blog.]

There are three things worth amplifying beyond Merrow’s blog post:

1)      Just how off Americans (including well-educated Americans) are on the colors of poverty;

2) how the continued misportrayal of American poor as “non-white” helps continue the trope of poverty equaling race  and makes poor whites more invisible; and

3)  How mis-coloring “poverty” undermines a public response to the problem.

Point #1: The national expert on this issue is Princeton scholar Martin Gilens.  Here is Gilens’ summary of his findings in a landmark 1996 article (cited below):

 Over the past decades, the black urban poor have come to dominate public images of poverty. Surveys show that the American public dramatically exaggerates the proportion of African Americans among the poor and that such misperceptions are associated with greater opposition to welfare. In this article I examine the relationship between news media portrayals and public images of poverty. I find that network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.

More recent studies have fully confirmed Gilens’ original findings.  In fact, according to a 2000 CBS News poll, only 18% of Americans know that most poor people are white!

Moreover, our own analysis suggests that the misperception may be slightly greater among college-educated whites than among less educated whites, perhaps because the less-educated whites are actually more likely to know poor folks.

Well-educated whites (college graduates) think blacks make up over half of folks on poverty!  (According to the 1991 National Race and Politics Survey).

The right number?  Blacks comprise only 23% of folks in poverty in the US (according to 2010 Census estimates, Table 4 in the above link).

Point #2:  The invisibility of the poor whites in media accounts and hence (according to Gilens) in the resulting public image of American poverty hurts poor whites (by undermining any potential impetus to respond to their plight) and perpetuates the trope that poverty equals poor non-whites.  Politicians and concerned citizens can’t effectively talk about and think about responding to the problem of American poverty if they can’t picture what American poverty looks like.

Point #3: The progressive NewsHour surely aims to encourage viewers to take policy or direct action to thwart the poverty-based educational gaps the story describes. Ironically, Gilens’ book shows in great detail that support for help to the poor is dramatically undermined by this media distortion in who is poor.  Namely, the fact that Americans misperceive that most of the American poor are black, makes them less inclined to respond. With visuals that accurately show the whiteness of poverty in America, media outlets could help overcome this crucial, irrational impediment to effective action against class disadvantage in America.

For more detail on Gilens’ findings, see:

-  Martin Gilens, “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” Public Opinion Quarterly (1996) 60:515-541

- Martin Gillen’s 1999 book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy. University of Chicago Press.

More recent citations: van Doorn, Bas W. “Media Portrayals of Poverty and Race in Pre- and Post-Welfare Reform America.” Portland, OR: Western Political Science Association Annual Meetings, 2012.

Clawson, Rosalee A., and Rakyua Trice. 2000. “Poverty as We Know It – Media Portrayals of the Poor.” Public Opinion Quarterly 64(1), no. 1: 53-64.

See NewsHour story “In Rhode Island, Reinventing Summer School to Prevent Kids’ Learning Loss”  [Note:  the NewsHour has vowed to repost video that attempts to correct their incorrect portrayal so what you see may not be the original version that aired, but instead their attempt to correct the original misrepresentation of American poverty.]

Robert Putnam on economic mobility and Great Recession

Flickr photo by bupowski

Robert Putnam was on the NewsHour yesterday in a story by Paul Solman on how inequality and decreasing economic mobility are affecting Americans even as the economy modestly recovers out of the Great Recession.

Excerpt:

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the American dream — your kids will do better than you — neither you nor your kids think that that`s the case?

COOKIE SHEERS: No, we all feel stuck in a rut. You feel like you can`t move, you can’t grow, like you’re just at that edge of water where you can come up for air every few minutes, but never long enough to feel that you have accomplished something. You always have to go back down.

BOBBY HICKS: Like she says, I feel like, once I feel like I have reached that part where my nostrils can come out the top, life comes back and just steps right on my face and says: You know what? It’s not time for you to come up for air yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: The numbers support the stories. Economic inequality in America, widening steadily since 1980, grew during the financial crisis, with the top 5 percent of Americans owning 65 percent of national wealth by mid-2009, up from 62 percent two years before. The losers were the bottom 80 percent, whose share of wealth fell during the crisis. Nearly half had negative net worth by mid-2009….But, at least historically, there was always the very real hope of moving up, at least across generations.

ROBERT PUTNAM, Harvard University: That isn’t true anymore….So, one of our competitive advantages as a — as a society, which used to be that we were very mobile, and we were constantly getting new infusions of talent and so on at the top, and — and that people down near the bottom had a hope that, if they didn’t do well, their kids could do well in the past in America.

That a poor kid could grow up in a tenement, go off to city college, do well, and himself end up in the next generation pretty well-off, that’s what’s becoming less likely in America. And I think that undermines a crucial part of the American myth or the American dream or the American social contract.

PAUL SOLMAN: Adds economist Sam Bowles:

SAMUEL BOWLES, Santa Fe Institute: America is distinct in the extent to which inequality is inherited from generation to generation. The kids of rich parents have a strong tendency to be rich, and the kids of poor parents are very, very likely to be poor. That’s one of the things which I think Americans find most shocking. That’s a huge discrepancy from what we think of as the land of opportunity.

Even a college-education, the key ingredient in economic mobility, doesn’t seem to immunize Americans from these economic problems:

DENISE BARRANT: In our family, everybody is college-educated. Most of us have masters’. Myself, I’m unemployed. My brother is unemployed. People used to think it was a guarantee. It is not. To invest $200,000- plus in an education, with no guarantee that you have a job, is scary.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Bobby Hicks’ job, it’s inequality, he says, that makes it possible.

BOBBY HICKS: In the security industry, you know, there is a demand for jobs, because the rich want to protect their assets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But those jobs are low-pay and low-prestige, despite the high stakes.

BOBBY HICKS: A pressure release valve for the domestic water in the building broke. And there was water flooding, and this was on the sixth floor. If their servers got wet, it would have wiped out the entire East Coast for this one particular company — and Bob, $9 an hour, to the rescue. Make the call, count on you, all right? But, if I screwed up, you’re gone.

Listen to NewsHour segment by Paul Solman “Many Americans Feel ‘Stuck in a Rut’ as Economy Improves but Inequality Grows” (3/24/11).

Note: the story is factually incorrect in claiming that Robert Putnam helped run Harvard’s Inequality Program.  He has never done that and Bruce Western runs Harvard’s Inequality Project currently, but Harvard’s Kennedy School Saguaro Seminar which Putnam leads has been undertaking a 4-5 year investigation of a growing youth social class gap.