Ignoring Poverty and Hunger

The mainstream media’s silence on these interrelated issues contributes to the starvation of millions both here and abroad.

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Two Somali children carrying a bowl and a pot walk to a food distribution center. As the election gets closer, the media must force politicians to discuss poverty and hunger, both in America and abroad. (AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
Two Somali children carrying a bowl and a pot walk to a food distribution center. As the election gets closer, the media must force politicians to discuss poverty and hunger, both in America and abroad. (AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

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 J. 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. He noted:

In 2007, 12.2 percent of Americans experienced what the Department of Agriculture describes as “low food security,” including 4 percent who fell into the category of very low food security. By 2011, the percentage of those coping with low food security rose to 16.4 percent, and those experiencing very low food security went up to 5.5 percent.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s definition, having “low food security” means that one is denied “enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life” owing to a lack of “money and other resources for food.” Edsall proposed at least one reason why the problem receives so little media attention: The fact that “in 2011 low food security was a problem for just under one in eight whites—a matter of concern but for many white voters a virtually invisible issue. Very low food security affects the lives of only one in 24 whites,” while for African Americans the number is 1 in 10. (The figures for Hispanics are similar, albeit slightly less than those of African Americans.)

Asked why they ignore a phenomenon affecting so many millions of people, journalists often give the response that they cannot raise an issue that neither political party wants to discuss. This is a lousy explanation, given the fact that it’s not true (see, for instance, “gun control” in the wake of any recent incident of mass murder) and furthermore begs the question as to why they cannot ask questions about why politicians are ignoring the issue.

The answer Edsall gives—and it is one that has received a great deal of attention in this space—is that any time anyone to the left of center seeks to raise the issue in a political context, it is immediately met with a hailstorm of “class warfare” accusations from the right and what now passes for the center. When African Americans are brought into the picture, the accusation of “playing the race card” is added to the mix.

Moreover, given the fact that the poor tend to be unorganized and often transient, they do not vote in large numbers, to say nothing of the obvious point that they do not often contribute to campaigns and super PACs. Their voice is thus barely heard in a debate where politicians focus on votes and the media on ratings, hits, and sales.

In such an atmosphere, I have to give props to the conservative economist Tyler Cowan, who recently raised an issue with even less political salience in this election season: the global food crisis beyond our borders. He observes that:

The drought-induced run-up in corn prices is a reminder that we’re nowhere near solving the problem of feeding the world. … that means the problem of hunger is flaring up again, as the World Bank and several United Nations agencies have recently warned.

The problem is most alarming in Africa. In a recent address, Michael Lipton, an economist and research professor at Sussex University, noted that with the exceptions only of Rwanda and Ghana, neither production nor calorie intake is any higher across the continent than it was half a century ago. Given population growth, future famines are almost a certainty.

Cowan makes a few suggestions about what the U.S. government can do to help. One obvious measure, he notes, is that we “should stop subsidizing [our] own corn-based biofuels, mainly ethanol.” Because roughly 40 percent of America’s field corn goes into biofuels, food prices rise, land use is perverted, and taxpayers are bilked. It’s far from clear that the policy even does what it is supposed to do, which is reduce the use of fossil fuels and slow climate change.

Of course much more can and needs to be done to improve food security within our own country and across the world. But before we can do anything at all, we first need to be able to at least discuss the issue. It is not unfair to call the mainstream media’s silence on this issue a contributory factor to the starvation of millions both here and abroad.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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