Student project peeling back the layers of poverty

By Ray Marcano

Poverty is a difficult subject to write about. You’re not dealing with public officials used to answering probing questions or athletes used to the glare of cameras.

You’re dealing with people, their emotions, and their lives.

It’s hard enough for a veteran journalist to cover a subject that addresses such a difficult problem, especially since you’re asking people to discuss the most personal aspects of their lives. What happened? How did you get here? What do you and don’t you have money for? How much do you make? Does the pain of hunger make you cry at night? How much do you earn?

Imagine asking a group of mostly 20-somethings who have, by in large, never written anything more challenging than a mock news story, or an article for their student newspaper, to do it.

That’s what the Advanced News Writing class at Wright State University did during the Fall 2017 semester.

These reporters and editors threw themselves into the project. One reporter spent six hours on one series of interviews; a pair spent their Sunday afternoon talking to people about the issues they face. Another paid, out of her own pocket, for materials to create the press packet we sent to dozens of local and national organizations.

Those tough questions? They asked. And they got answers. They got them because the people living through poverty wanted to share their stories.

We told the story of a man who thought he had planned for retirement, until a health issue threw him into poverty. We told the story of another man who was forced to live on disability after he was burned in an accident. We told the tales of hard-working people struggling to pay their bills.

And these people wanted to make one thing crystal clear – they’re not trying to game the system, as the stereotype goes. They don’t want a handout or sympathy.

They want help and understanding.

These were all people who either can’t pull themselves out of poverty or found themselves plunged into it because of circumstances beyond their control. We wrote about the mental scars of poverty and the loss of self-esteem that often comes with a lack of a pay check. We wrote about how a lack of support systems makes it so hard to pull yourself out of the abyss, no matter how determined you are. We wrote about increased government rules that make it harder – not easier – for people to make a better life for themselves.

At first, I thought this series of stories wouldn’t change anything, but I was wrong. It changed how these students viewed the face of poverty.

Angel Lane, reporter: “I truly hope that people in the community will see things in a different light and maybe lessen the harsh judgment they commonly hold of people living in poverty,” she said. “This project has so much potential to make a huge impact, and I hope that it will.”

Taylor Wood, marketing manager: “How we are raising awareness for poverty is amazing, but to go out in the community and actively help those in need, that is something I know I’ll never forget.”

Lindsay Olson, our ebook editor, encompassed the way the class felt with a beautifully written forward, a part of it which reads:

“Growing up in middle-class suburbia, no one explicitly said it, but there were clearly implied ‘rules’ and ‘truths.’ If someone is panhandling at the exit, keep your window rolled up and pretend not to notice. If someone approaches you and asks for money, watch their hands, they could be trying to rob you. Avoid low-income areas, they’re inherently dangerous. People on welfare or unemployment abuse the system, and are less intelligent. Homeless people just want money for alcohol and drugs. It was just how things were.

“I really only began to rethink my assumptions after being in the car when my older brother went out of his way to give money to a man who had been sleeping under the overpass on South Jefferson Street.

“It doesn’t make me proud to say any of this. But it does make me proud to think that the works of my classmates could encourage someone else to even just start a conversation and challenge the stigma surrounding poverty.”

When we began class in late August, I wanted to show these students that they could successfully explore a difficult subject, that they could ask hard questions with empathy. They’ve done much more. They’ve put a face on poverty, and hopefully, that’s enough to spur them – and by extension, the community — to do more to solve this insidious problem.

You can read the stories at www.whoispoverty.com.

Ray Marcano is an instructor

at Wright State University. He

retired from Cox Media Group

in 2014 after a 30-year career

as a journalist and digital

media specialist.