ledger

Documenting Poverty

Spring 2014

Collecting data is an important tool in the overall effort to understand and alleviate poverty, but as columnist Mark Shields likes to say, "Numbers don't bleed." Maybe that is why some of the most effective vehicles for raising awareness of poverty and sparking action to address it have combined compelling narrative with powerful visuals.

Here are five:

  1. How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis, 1890
    More than a century before anyone expressed concern for the 99 percent, Jacob Riis created an eye-opening account of "how the other half lives." Riis used the skills he had acquired working as a police reporter, combined with the relatively new technology of flash photography, to create a late 19th century account of life in the squalid slums of New York.
  2. Photographs of the Un-rich and the Un-famous: Lewis Hine
    Lewis Hine (1874-1940) photographed people whose lives were a constant struggle to make ends meet: children who spent 12-hour days inside factory walls, newsies who lived on the streets and survived by their wits, immigrants who tried their best to make sense of a strange new land, and hundreds or even thousands of men and women who worked long hours for short money. Hine's images truly are haunting; once you see them, they stay with you for life. (See also: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/dgexplore.cfm?col_id=175.)
  3. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans, 1941
    James Agee was the writer, Walker Evans the photographer. Fortune magazine brought them together in 1936 for an eight-week assignment to document the lives of sharecropping families in rural Alabama. Their work formed the basis for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men published in 1941. To read Agee's prose and look upon Evans's images is to gain an inkling of what it must mean to face each day with little hope and even less money. http://blogs.loc.gov/picturethis/2011/10/let-us-now-praise-famousphoto-albums-walker-evans%E2%80%99-albums-for-let-us-nowpraise-famous-men/
  4. CBS News Harvest of Shame, 1960
    Back before they decided that "reality" meant putting various groups of narcissistic adults in front of a TV camera, the networks did some pretty good reporting on issues related to poverty. Harvest of Shame was one of the standouts. The 55-minute CBS News documentary focused on the plight of migrant workers, who, in the words of CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow, were "the forgotten people; the undereducated; the under-fed."

    The program aired on the day after Thanksgiving 1960, in an effort "to shock the consciousness of the nation." Hard to imagine that would happen today. (See also: http://billmoyers.com/2013/07/19/watch-edward-r-murrows-harvest-ofshame/ and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/harvest-of-shame-50-years-later.)
  5. Paycheck to Paycheck, HBO, 2014
    If you are thinking that all the good reporting on poverty took place back in some golden age that never was, you should set aside an hour of your life to watch Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert. Produced in association with The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, it follows a "single Tennessee mom through her day-to-day life, as she works full time as a certified nurse's assistant but has to choose between paying for her medication and finalizing her divorce." And if you can't watch the show, here's an alternative suggestion: Try spending a week or two living on $9.49 an hour.

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Robert Jabaily
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