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Woodruff: With Poverty on the Rise, Are Reporters Getting the Whole Story?

Updated Sept. 15, 11:45 a.m. ET

Arriving for a short visit on the iconic campus of Ole Miss — the University of Mississippi in Oxford — I’m struck by how quiet things are, how un-frenzied life seems on the surface.

But still on my mind is the report from Ray Suarez from Tuesday night about how many more Americans are living in poverty today than at any time since 1993. Forty-six million people got by last year with less than $11,139 in annual income; or $22,314 for a family of four. In other words, 15 percent of Americans are getting by on less than $200 per week.* Think of the cost of shelter, food, transportation, clothing, health care: $200 doesn’t go very far.

Poverty expert Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution told Ray that the new statistic showing the highest number ever recorded in “extreme” poverty is even more alarming. Thanks to the scarcity of jobs, many are living on just $5,000 a year, she said, or under $100 a week, which even with food stamps and other aid is almost impossible for most of us to imagine.

In another piece of bad news, the U.S. Census Bureau also announced that the share of Americans without health insurance rose to 16.3 percent in 2010, from 13 percent ten years earlier. According to the report, private employers are insuring fewer people, while government is insuring more. (Republican threats to dismantle President Obama’s controversial health care reform plan raise the question of what will happen in the future to individuals who lose employer coverage?)

None of these statistics should be a surprise, given the unemployment crisis facing the country, but seeing the numbers in black-and-white makes it more real. As a journalist based in Washington, I wonder whether all of us who report the news, who are supposed to understand the country we cover, really have a grasp on what is happening.

Washington has suffered some job loss, but less than the rest of the United States; the same goes for New York, where much of the rest of the journalism establishment resides. We look out our windows and see bustling activity, cars and cabs rushing by, people still on the job. We know a few who have lost work, but for the most part, it’s not an intimate part of our lives.

I pledge to myself to try in the next few years to stay in closer touch with the rest of the country, so that my work can better reflect what ordinary Americans are experiencing.
Covering the coming presidential election will get us out to where the candidates are, but that won’t be the whole story — they spend most of their time in a dozen so-called “swing states” where voters don’t reliably vote either Democratic or Republican.

But the country is a lot bigger than that. Mississippi, where I am today, has voted for a Republican president in every election but one since Eisenhower. Still, in my few hours here, I’ve already met a sophomore who says he’s having a hard time making ends meet, paying rent on his apartment, and affording gas for his car. A part-time job on campus helps, but he’s worried.

He’s the type American I want to keep in mind as I report on efforts to create jobs, turn the economy around and an already-frantic presidential campaign.

*Editor’s Note: Here’s a little more information on how the Census Bureau measures poverty status: the income figures are before taxes and do not include non-cash benefits like food stamps or housing subsidies. Read more here.

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