This article ran in the Kansas City Star on Saturday (I admit; I’m one of those freeloaders who does not actually subscribe to the paper but reads it all online!), and I think it offers some important caution to social workers engaging with the media, particularly as we try to tell the stories of how those with whom we work are experiencing the current economic downturn.
Disclaimer: Some of my analysis here is conjecture; I was not involved in putting this story together, so a lot of this is me reading into it based on my literally hundreds of encounters with local, regional, and national media.
What I think the social service advocates who were profiled in this story were trying to do with their particular selection of this family (it would pretty much have to be through some social service agency reference point that they were identified, since journalists can’t exactly divine who’s using food pantries) was tell a somewhat surprising story about the rising need for emergency food assistance. They had an idea of the ‘typical’ recipient in the public’s mind, and they wanted to challenge that with their profile. That’s not a bad idea, except that, as we see here, it didn’t really work out in their interest.
As you can see if you read through the comments to the article (I know, that section of the Star can be painful, but here it’s instructive), the selection of this particular family, and, I would argue, the focus on an individual family, period, changed the discussion from where it should have been–the economy is hitting people hard and (which is missing entirely) government support is declining, so nonprofit safety net organizations, like food pantries, have to fill a widening gap.
Notice what’s missing ENTIRELY? Any discussion of policy reforms that would help–nothing about increasing the eligibility limit for Food Stamps, nothing about expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, nothing about living wage ordinances, nothing about universal health care (especially important for near-poor families like these), nothing about alternative energy pricing…the discussion, instead, somewhat in the article and especially in the apparent reaction to it, revolves around where this family should be shopping to lower their bill, what kinds of food they should be eating, whether this family is really representative of people experiencing hunger, whether they’re really in need at all…
There is always a danger that the discussion goes entirely parochial with these kinds of stories, because what reporters want is a ‘human face’, and that human face can easily distort the conversation. Advocates can try to overcome this by: consistently raising root causes and policy solutions (because if that’s all you say they’ll have to print some of it!), working with client spokespeople in advance so that they are conscious of the politicization of the given issue and prepared to tell their story with an eye towards that, and thinking carefully about how you select your ‘human face’.
Reading this article, if I knew nothing about poverty or hunger, I guess I’d know that some people who live in nice houses in the suburbs still need help from food pantries, and maybe (assuming I also live in a nice house in the suburbs) that would make me more likely to donate (?), but I wouldn’t know anything about the kinds of reforms that would really help families like this, and I’d likely have a pretty skewed, or at least limited, idea about who food pantries serve and why their burdens have been increasing.
What do you think? Did you respond differently to the article? What message would you want to communicate about your issue, especially if you got a front-page chance? What ‘kind’ of client would you choose to tell it?
Record numbers turn to food pantries for assistance – Kansas City Star