19 November 2011

The New York Times Peddles Stereotypes of Economic Insecurity

Belinda Sheppard and two adult children live above the poverty line, and
barely cover their bills. Photograph © Doug Mills/The New York Times.

So, among the things that is surprising is that just as the OWS protesters are raising a ruckus about political-economic inequality in the U.S., there has been a steady stream of news reports about just how dire matters actually turn out to be. So, here is a report from The New York Times on recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau showing the creep of economic insecurity beyond the usual suspects (undereducated, unemployed, racial minorities) and the usual places (desolate urban and rural enclaves).
Patched together a half-century ago, the official poverty measure has long been seen as flawed. It ignores hundreds of billions the needy receive in food stamps, tax credits and other programs, and the similarly large sums paid in taxes, medical care and work expenses. The new method, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, counts all those factors and adjusts for differences in the cost of living, which the official measure ignores.

The results scrambled the picture of poverty in many surprising ways. The measure shows less severe destitution, but a bit more overall poverty; fewer poor children, but more poor people over 65.

Of the 51 million who appear near poor under the fuller measure, nearly 20 percent were lifted up from poverty by benefits the official count overlooks. But more than half were pushed down from higher income levels: more than eight million by taxes, six million by medical expenses, and four million by work expenses like transportation and child care.

Demographically, they look more like “The Brady Bunch” than “The Wire.” Half live in households headed by a married couple; 49 percent live in the suburbs. Nearly half are non-Hispanic white, 18 percent are black and 26 percent are Latino.
You'll notice that roughly half of those among the "near poor" - meaning they are above the official poverty line, but just, and that they are one mishap or mis-step away from the precipice - are white. This is an important story about the "suburbanization" of economic hardship and insecurity.

Unsurprisingly, right-wingers want to invoke euphemisms to mask the extent of the problem. (Why even bother to ask mouthpieces from the Heritage Foundation?) But the real questions I have are for the "liberal" reporters and editors at The Times: Why put a black face on this predicament? And why not a married couple instead of a single parent? The photograph at the top of the page appears just below the story headline.

It is not that I want to discount the hardships of Black Americans, but politically, it is too easy and too common to identify poverty as "Black" or "Hispanic" and so as not "our" problem. The visuals matter.

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