Jina Moore of the Christian Science Monitor Wins November Sidney for Inquiry Into American Poverty
Jina Moore, regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, won the November Sidney Award for Below The Line: Poverty In America, a portrait of poverty as it is measured by official statistics and lived by real people.
Linda Criswell earns just over $12,000 a year as a full-time childcare worker, but she technically steals fruit from the snack bowl at work because she can’t afford to buy her own. She tracks grain prices to see if she’ll be able to afford meat in the months ahead. Is she poor? She’s poor enough for food stamps, but maybe not poor enough for Medicaid. If you ask Criswell, she’ll tell you that–regardless of what the state says–she lives in a state of continual anxiety.
According to the official statistics, 46.2 million Americans live in poverty. Yet, many Americans console themselves with the notion that “real poverty” in the United States has been eliminated.
What does it mean to be poor in the world’s richest country? Is it an absolute threshold or a relative concept? Can you measure it in dollars, calories, or PlayStations? Can any statistic capture intangibles like autonomy and dignity? As a journalist who divides her time between New York and East Africa, Moore knows that even the poorest Americans are rich by global standards, but it’s difficult to argue that Linda Criswell is getting by.
“Moore’s reporting raises important philosophical questions that cut to the heart of our national debate about inequality,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.
Jina Moore is a reporter, producer and editor who splits her time between New York and East Africa. She has been a contract correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and a contributor to Newsweek, Foreign Policy, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Boston Review, and PRI’s The World, among others. Her early human rights reporting was reprinted in Best American Science Writing (2009). She is nonfiction editor at Guernica Magazine and editorial director of the Dart Society, where she edits and publishes the human rights magazine Dart Society Reports.
- You illustrate different metrics of poverty by profiling real people. How did you go about selecting the subjects for your story?
The old fashioned way: I talked to everyone I could think of who might know people in the situation we label “poverty.” I went to the local homeless coalition, the homeless shelters, the food pantries, and social service referral agencies, the local office where food stamps are distributed. Most of these didn’t result in useful leads, but the few that did were all I needed. It might be empowering to people to know I got in, networked, found my sources, wrote and got out, all in a week.
- Money is a sensitive subject, but your subjects really opened up. How did you go about building a rapport with them?
The people I met know, better than I could imagine, exactly how they live. They know they are struggling; they know some people consider them poor. My presence didn’t bring them news about that.
I learn time and time again in reporting that the most important thing in your approach to subjects is honesty. If you’re uncomfortable, it undermines building trust. If you’re open, clear and honest, it invites them to engage you in the same way. It’s important not to be a jerk, of course, but when sensitivity and kindness become, say, pity, you get in your own way. That also reinforces rather than breaks down the power differential.
- Mollie Orshansky’s famous 1965 poverty statistic, which is still used to calculate the official poverty rate, is based on the assumption that Americans spend 1/3 of their income on food. Nowadays the average person spends a lot less on food, but more on other things like housing and transportation, which aren’t included in the formula. What’s the bottom line? Does the Orshansky threshold overstate or understate poverty today?
The (overly) simple answer is, neither. But the statisticians who work on this say, rightly, that it’s really complicated. Our bureaucratic notion of being poor is whether you have enough cash to get what you need. Conservatives have long said Orshansky’s formula is inaccurate because the poor get food stamps, which frees up other cash so they can get things they need. Liberals have long said Orshansky’s formula is inaccurate because it doesn’t consider other very real expenses. So conservatives might say the formula overestimates poverty, and liberals might say it underestimates poverty.
- What is the Supplemental Poverty Measure? How does the government use it and how does it improve on the Orshansky threshold?
The SPM attempts to consider the cost of medical insurance or gasoline as household expenses, and to consider food stamps or rental subsidies as household income. [Ed: The latest set of SPM data were released on Wednesday.] It also takes into account cost of living differences and many more things. The upshot last year was that it didn’t make that much difference – the numbers were nearly the same. So when you add in the cost of life in America, people on food stamps aren’t “getting a deal.” And when you get food stamps, you still need to pour your “extra” money into transport, rent, and insurance.
The more meaningful issue, I think, for people like Linda Criswell and Missy Nash, who are in the piece, is how far wages go – or don’t go– these days.
- All these different measures of poverty invite the question: Is poverty absolute or relative? Conservatives like Robert Rector seem to think that it’s an absolute threshold, that people who have a roof over their heads, a few appliances, and enough food to ward off starvation cannot be poor. Even the poorest Americans are rich by global standards. Yet few would argue that we’ve vanquished poverty in America. How do we reconcile these two perspectives?
Rector’s argument, as I understand it, is that people who have as many “luxuries” as America’s poor aren’t “really” poor. As in, “How can you be poor if you have an Xbox?” It’s also, I think, a bit about how a rising tide lifts all boats: The standard of living in the US today is so much better than it was 50 years ago, so today’s poverty isn’t as painful as yesterday’s. So, the argument runs on, what are we really talking about?
I don’t know how to reconcile the two perspectives, because I think people are talking about two different things. Even if we say that poverty is absolute, there isn’t agreement about how absolutely bad it “should” be to be poverty. And that’s before we even bring in other experts who focus on things like structural inequalities and poverty’s effect on opportunity.
- One of your subjects says: “we all have some poverty.” What did he mean by that?
He also says someone’s always richer than you, and someone’s always poorer. He’s right: That’s always true, even for the richest of us.
- You’ve spent many years covering poverty in Africa, poverty that looks a lot more like most Americans’ stereotype of “real poverty.” What has that experience taught you about poverty in the U.S.?
American media narratives about Africa are preoccupied with poverty, and occasionally they want to see it even where it isn’t really the story. American media narratives about America, on the other hand, don’t work that way. NPR reported just before the election that many media houses were obsessing over the economy, but there was little dialogue on poverty. Linda Criswell called me after the story came out and said, “I’m so glad this is finally out there. People need to know there are people who want to work, who are working, who aren’t trying to take from the government, but who aren’t having an easy time.” Among the things I hear in that is that people living like Linda don’t feel heard. And that is something that seems to me a commonality between being poor in America and being poor in Africa.
- If it were up to you, how would we measure poverty in America?
I wish we could spend less time trying to figure out the right variable to adjust in the technocratic equation that gets fought over and more time trying to understand, from their perspectives, the lives of people who seem different from us. Until we confront our inability to listen to each other in a meaningful way, I’m not sure even the best formula on earth would do any good.