Based on our sample, journalistic reportage about poverty can be characterized as a “bad news/good news” story. On the negative side are reports about the huge increase in poverty resulting from the Great Recession, accompanied by cuts in safety net programs due to partisan budget struggles in Washington and the diminishing resources of states and localities during a time of economic setbacks. On the other side, we found a significant number of positive news reports about successes in tackling poverty, all of which occurred at the local level. These include stories about new approaches to educating poor children and strengthening impoverished communities through a range of support services.

A different story plays out on opinion pages, blogs, and public affairs broadcasts. There we see an ideological battle that mirrors the extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C. Conservative talk show hosts, commentators, politicians, and experts argue that “government entitlements” create dependency and weaken us as a nation. They overwhelmingly attribute poverty to the demise of the two-parent family and the rise in “out-of-wedlock” births. Progressives argue, just as forcefully, that poverty’s causes are structural rather than individual, that government has an obligation to eradicate poverty, and that the nation as a whole will be better for it. There are few centrist commentators in the debate.

While news reporters generally ascribe poverty to systemic causes, they do so fleetingly, mentioning in passing plant closings, low educational levels, a shift from full-time to part-time work, the collapse of the housing industry, and even more generally, “a weak economy” and “not enough employment.” The disparate impact of poverty based on race, ethnicity, and gender receives practically no attention. In other words, the depth of news coverage of the causes of poverty does not equip media consumers to evaluate the claims of progressives or of conservative commentators.

In our samples, the increase in the rate of poverty and the phenomenon of the “newly poor” are frequent subjects. Their plight is described sympathetically and is often told through the words of people who were once members of the middle class and are now unemployed and reluctantly receiving public assistance. The unstated subtext is that these “newly poor” are different from the “old poor.” In stories about deep poverty, however, the life circumstances of people living in “poverty-stricken neighborhoods” and children going to “high-poverty schools” are described in more general terms, and their voices are not often heard through direct quotes.

A comparison of the three time periods in our study does not reveal a noticeable shift in the content or tone of media coverage. There was a slight increase in the number of articles and broadcasts over time, from 2009 to 2013, as shown in Figure 1 on page II-6. The storylines are consistent from year to year and the ideological debate reflected in commentary hits the same notes throughout.

Whereas the 1960s were marked by a “War on Poverty,” and the 1990s by “Welfare-to-Work,” this sample of more than 100 media items lacks any coherent mention of a national plan or approach to ending poverty. In commentary, conservatives call for reducing “out-of-wedlock births” without saying how this would be accomplished. Progressive commentary typically calls for shoring up existing programs and, in one case, for a White House conference on poverty. Unlike issues such as immigration, where the president is widely quoted calling for policy reform, his voice is largely missing on solutions to poverty.

News Stories


The topics in our sample fall into six categories. The most common stories are about children and poverty, which constitute 28 percent of the total. The poverty rate and the “newly poor” are the second most common at 19 percent of the total. Coverage of the safety net, health care and the poor, anti-poverty programs, and “miscellaneous” comprise 16 percent, 14 percent, 13 percent, and 10 percent, respectively.

Figure 4. Storylines

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Source: A Window of Opportunity: Media and Public Opinion on Poverty in America, June 2014, The Opportunity Agenda.

Children and poverty (28%)

Half of the 25 print articles in this category are from 2013, and most focus on poor children and the education system, from pre-K through elementary school. The stories convey a sense of positive change, as they describe efforts in various locales to improve both the academic achievement and the social well- being of students in schools where the majority of children are poor. These articles stress the fact that reforms are based on approaches designed to address both academic and non-academic needs so that children from poor families can focus on their studies. For example, The Boston Globe reported that in addition to more computers, more professional development for teachers, and smaller classes, the schools in Lynn, Massachusetts, where 93 percent of the students come from low-income families, “have hired social workers, given teachers trauma-sensitive classroom training, and had the Lynn Community Health Center set up medical clinics … in the building.”9 We also found several pieces about efforts to establish charter schools and school vouchers as alternatives to the public school system for educating poor children, and opposition from both government and educators.10

Several articles in this category focus on early childhood literacy and education, and a Washington Post story alludes to research showing that before the age of four, children from low-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than other children and come to elementary school less prepared than their peers.11 Articles also point out that in spite of the efficacy of pre-K education programs, the country is a long way from providing universal pre-K, and low-income families who cannot afford private programs are left fighting over a limited number of seats.12 The Columbus Dispatch reported on the release of a study by the Pre-K Now Campaign, which revealed that Ohio slashed preschool programs more than any other state, resulting in fewer seats for low-income children.13

The most in-depth coverage in our sample was a broadcast segment on MSNBC in September 2009 that discussed the question of whether the solution to childhood poverty rested with the individual family or with society as a whole.14 Journalist and author Michelle Bernard hosted the MSNBC special, “About Our Children,” live from Howard University. Her guest, Bill Cosby, announced at the outset that “It’s time to talk about our children and their future. We have to talk honestly about our problems and solutions—parenting, health, education, poverty.” Bernard then set the frame by quoting Cosby: “The revolution begins at home.” For the most part, quotations from guest panelists Ben Jealous of the NAACP and comedian Paul Rodriguez, described as a “parent activist,” focused on their own upbringing, the mentors who influenced them, and the choices they made to overcome adversity. The third panelist, Maria Cancian, an associate dean and professor at the University of Wisconsin, who has published original research on women in low-income families, by contrast, stressed the need to expand opportunity.15

The poverty rate and the “newly poor” (19%)

Most of the articles and broadcasts in this category are pegged to the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report, “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage,” which comes out in September, and all of them lead with news of the escalating poverty rate. Some focus on a state or locality, others on national trends. Many recite the Census Bureau’s definition of poverty (in 2012, $23,283 for a family of two adults and two children), and tally the number of poor people and the percentage of the increase since the beginning of the economic downturn. Adjectives like “staggering” and “discouraging” help paint a grim picture of the Great Recession’s impact on many American families. A sampling of headlines is illustrative:

  • “Millions More Thrust Into Poverty; Decade of Headway in Household Income Erased, Census Data Find” (Carol Morello and Dan Keating, The Washington Post, September 11, 2009)
  • “Poverty Seeping into Suburbs; Job Scarcity is the Main Reason for Increasing Numbers of Newly Poor” (Francine Knowles, Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 2011)
  • “6 Million in State Live in Poverty; The Rate Creeps Up for the 4th Year in a Row. One in 5 Residents Lacks Health Insurance” (Alana Samuels and Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2011)

The 11 broadcast segments in this category cover much of the same ground, highlighting the soaring numbers of people living in poverty and the fact that “more middle class are slipping into the ranks of  the poor.”16 On-camera interviews with newly poor people are quite emotional. Some convey a sense of surprise and bewilderment on the part of people who thought they were economically secure but now find themselves in hard times. In an illustrative segment on NBC News that focused on a once-prosperous community in Georgia, reporter Lester Holt interviewed a young woman:

Young woman: Maybe in the whole scheme of the world we weren’t rich, but to us in Millen we were pretty rich.

Holt (voiceover): Whitley had grown accustomed to getting what she wanted. Now the family’s restaurant was gone, the parents were unemployed and struggling to save their home. But Whitley was having trouble letting go. Her fall from privilege would be swift. It would compromise a childhood dream and bring her family face-to-face with something that just a few months before had been unimaginable. (ON CAMERA) Did you look around at some point and go, “These are the people I see on TV. These are those stories I read about and we’re them.”

Young woman: It’s like, “We are the poor people.” You know, “How did we get to this?”17

Other interview subjects expressed a sense of humiliation about their newly poor status and fear about the future:

Woman: Right now I’m living on approximately $200 cash a month, $360 food stamps. I do not have a full-time job on a daily basis. The safety nets are very important. And the more that they get cut, the scarier it is to think about tomorrow.18

The reported causes of the rise in poverty, usually noted fleetingly, are systemic, including plant closings, low educational levels, a shift from full-time to part-time work, the collapse of the housing industry, and, even more generally, “a weak economy” and “not enough employment.” A more in-depth description of causes is found in a New York Times article about Reading, Pennsylvania, “a city of 88,000 that has earned the unwelcome distinction of having the largest share of its residents living in poverty, barely edging out Flint, Mich., according to new Census Bureau data.”19 The article describes how the closings of several large plants in the past decade threw thousands out of work, and points out that Reading’s educational level is far lower than the national average: just 8 percent of the residents have bachelor’s degrees compared to 28 percent nationwide. This fact, the story explains, discourages companies from locating there.

Several articles feature specific families to illustrate the plight of the newly poor. They describe the families’ changes in circumstance as both abrupt and radical. A Los Angeles Times piece, for example, quotes members of a family of four who were forced to live separately after the father lost his job as a mortgage broker.20 A Chicago Sun-Times reporter writes that “fourteen months ago, Aurora resident Prentiss Bailey was going about happily living his life as usual. Today, he and his 10-year-old daughter live in a homeless shelter.”21

The effect of “new poverty” on different demographic groups is a recurring theme. New poverty in the suburbs is the subject of several articles. Others point out regional differences, such as the Northeast “escaping with a lighter knock” than the Midwest and the West.22 In 2011, the elderly on fixed but dependable incomes were reported to be faring better than those between the ages of 15 and 24, whose income had plunged 15.3 percent.23 Race and ethnicity, however, are mentioned in only a couple of articles that point out that Hispanics, especially those born outside the United States, “experienced some of the biggest losses” in income, but that the poverty rate rose for all races.24

The increase in poverty among children received some coverage. Two broadcast segments were pegged to a report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in August 2011.25 The report’s findings got a mention on CBS News: “A new study finds a dramatic rise in child poverty in this country. From 2000 to 2009, it increased in 38 states. By 2009, almost 15 million American children were poor.”26 CNN gave the report more coverage, including an interview with an unemployed couple who lived with their children in  public housing. Their unemployment benefits had run out, and their power had been recently cut off. The mother said, “We did candles. We just, you know, some days during that six-week period, it was the kids who had to eat. We just had to make sacrifices.” Annie E. Casey Foundation spokesperson Laura Speer said, “We can’t forget about children as we make decisions in the fiscal crisis. We can’t cut these programs thinking eventually we might put money back into them because childhood is a very short time.”27

Entitlement programs and the safety net (16%)

All 19 of the articles and broadcasts in this category describe political struggles over the funding of entitlement and safety net programs. Several are about threatened reductions in the food stamp program. These pieces are framed as conflicts between Republicans and Democrats. Many are from August and September 2013, when the rancorous budget debate was unfolding in Washington.

The inadequacy of some state cash assistance programs received some coverage. A 2013 study by the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that the state of Pennsylvania was denying benefits in 8 out of every 10 cases because the applicants hadn’t complied with a new state law requiring every applicant to seek at least three jobs and document his or her efforts. The reporter pointed out that this is “a pattern being repeated in 17 other states.”28 The Denver Post reported on an inquiry into the “cliff effect” conducted by a Colorado public broadcasting station. The cliff effect occurs when even a modest rise in family income can lead to the termination of a government benefit. The article focuses on the loss of subsidized child care faced by many poor working parents if they get even a small wage increase.29

Also in this group are several articles about challenges faced by service providers in the nonprofit sector because of increasing demand. The leads in those articles emphasize scarcity and competition. For example:

“Hundreds of people form a line snaking down the side of the building, many having arrived hours before. They are assigned numbers to ensure there’s some semblance of order after fights began breaking out in line many months ago.”30

Health care (14%)

All of the health care articles and broadcast segments are about health insurance, and most of them are from 2009, during the height of the debate over health care reform in Washington. News-show segments from 2009 covered political opposition to the health care reform measures under debate and the affordability of insurance for low-income people. Anchor Judy Woodruff on PBS, for example, conducted a lengthy interview with Susan Dentzer, then editor of the journal Health Affairs, about  the dispute in Congress over the size of health care subsidies the new law would provide to those who weren’t poor enough to be on Medicaid, but who were too poor to afford health insurance.31

Print articles from 2009 covered much the same ground. The so-called Baucus bill, named for Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, was attacked by Republicans, who argued that “his plan spent too much on insurance subsidies for low-income people.” Democrats said it “did not spend enough.” Consumer groups and patient advocacy organizations criticized the bill for being “unaffordable for millions of Americans” because those earning 150 to 200 percent of the poverty level would have to pay 5.5 percent of their income for health insurance.32 By October, the struggle to reconcile House and Senate proposals was still ongoing, and the question of subsidies for low-income families was still an issue.33

Four articles from 2013 covered the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act and the challenges and difficulties the new law faces, including the refusal of some states to participate in the expansion of Medicaid.34 In an overview of the implementation challenges faced by the new law and by President Obama, “both substantive and political, and a degree of difficulty that has no historical parallel,” the reporter noted that about 6.4 million poor people “will be left behind because they live in states that either have chosen not to broaden eligibility for their Medicaid programs or have not made a decision.”35

Anti-poverty programs (13%)

Most of the articles in this category cast anti-poverty programs in a generally positive light and described modest successes at the local level. Some of the programs are exclusively governmental, and some are public–private partnerships. All of these pieces target persistent or intergenerational poverty, and phrases like “poverty-stricken neighborhoods,” “concentrated poverty,” “breaking the cycle of poverty,” and “escaping poverty” are common. They go into some detail about programmatic goals and strategies. For example, a New York Times article describes a Philadelphia program called Shared Opportunity as:

an attempt to break a cycle in which successive generations live in poverty. The program hopes to increase the number of children entering kindergarten with pre-literacy skills, and to increase enrollment in high-quality child care. And to reduce the impact on the poor of predatory lending and costly check-cashing services, it will offer financial counseling to help clients open bank accounts, raise credit scores, and reduce debt. The services will also help former inmates, who face some of the biggest challenges in finding work.36

Other anti-poverty programs covered by the media in our sample include:

  • San Francisco’s plan to use federal stimulus funds allocated to the state to create jobs for low-income workers hired by local government, private businesses, and nonprofits37
  • Philabundance, a privately-funded nonprofit supermarket offering free items along with low- priced staples in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods38
  • New York City’s “experimental anti-poverty program” that pays poor families up to $5,000 a year for going to regular medical checkups, attending school, and keeping jobs39
  • The Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada’s nonprofit, offering a range of programs for poor children40
  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s grant-making to organizations that come up with “effective family-engagement models” for low-income students41

The tone of these articles is generally upbeat, with positive quotes from program supporters and beneficiaries. A private sector employer who hired workers under the San Francisco program to use stimulus funds to create jobs said, “It has been a shot in the arm for us, absolutely beneficial. We have the technology, we have the equipment, but as the economy was drying up, so was our funding. … What we didn’t have was the labor.”42 The executive director of the Robin Hood Foundation said of New York’s cash incentive program, “We’re thrilled with our partnership with the city and the results are very very promising.”43 A 14-year-old student at the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy said, “All the teachers want you to go to college. They’ll help you even on their lunch break.”44

Race, gender, and immigration status

We found virtually no substantive news coverage of the links between poverty and race, gender, or immigration status. Some of the articles about the increase in the poverty rate mentioned in passing the differential rates based on race and ethnicity. A 2011 article, for example, reported that according to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate for blacks had risen to 27.4 percent, for Hispanics to 26.6 percent, and for whites to 9.9 percent.45 Another article mentioned that although a decline in income was experienced by all groups, “the decline was felt most keenly by people born outside the United States,” and an expert explained that the statistics showed that immigrants “are on the most tenuous rungs of the ladder. When the economy gets shaken, they’re the first to get jettisoned.”46

As will be seen below in the section headed “Opinion & Commentary,” gender plays a prominent role in the conservative argument about the causes of and solutions to poverty. But the relationship between poverty and gender was highlighted only inferentially in broadcast segments in which the interview subjects were poor mothers. The alarming rise in poverty among single mothers was mentioned in passing in a New York Times article about the 2011 Census Bureau report, which found that “more than 40 percent of households headed by a woman now live in poverty, which is defined as $17,568 for a family of three.”47


The voices elevated in the news media as sources for quotes or as guests in the broadcast context play an important role in framing and positioning the way a story is told. Who gets quoted in news reports or selected for broadcast interviews, and what they say, influences the audience’s perception of an issue. Choice of sources also conveys the legitimacy of particular people or institutions on an issue. Our analysis of spokespeople looks at the types of speakers who appeared most frequently in print and broadcast news stories. In our sample, the types of sources were fairly evenly distributed across the six different categories, and these voices were overwhelmingly sympathetic to poor people. They did not, however, deliver a coherent, solution-oriented message.

Figure 5. Voices

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Source: A Window of Opportunity: Media and Public Opinion on Poverty in America, June 2014, The Opportunity Agenda.

Anti-poverty advocates

Twenty percent of the quotes in our sample come from leaders of anti-poverty advocacy organizations. A majority of spokespeople represent statewide organizations, examples of which include the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, Health Access California, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and the Louisiana Consumer Healthcare Coalition. Leaders of local and national organizations are also quoted, but less frequently than statewide organizations. Examples on the local level include Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and New York City’s Community Service Society, and on the national level, the D.C.-based Pre-K Now Campaign and the Poverty and Race Research and Action Council. The quotes from advocates did not have a unifying theme or narrative. Few advocates appeared in broadcast segments.

Quotes included:

“While the dramatic new numbers from the census depict working-class Americans newly fallen into poverty, it’s important to remember the long-term poor. People who’ve always been down are now down and out.”48 – Advocate with the Food Research and Action Center

“The state refused to take advantage of increased federal subsidies to expand some health care services to poor families that need the assistance, so they will continue to do without and scrape together money that they don’t have.”49 – Director of the Louisiana Consumer Healthcare Coalition

“We see poverty as this overarching umbrella that impacts every other part of the child’s well-being and success. The long-term implications for kids are tragic.”50 – President of Colorado  Children’s Campaign

Service providers

Eighteen percent of the quotes were from service providers representing food banks, homeless shelters, and free health clinics. Most of the individuals quoted were from local service agencies such as Opportunity House, a homeless shelter in Reading, Pa.; the San Francisco Food Bank; and the Arlington Free Clinic. Others were from state and local chapters of national organizations, including United Way and the Red Cross. Their quotes emphasized the increasing pressure on their agencies because of the growing number of people living in poverty.

Quotes included:

“I think the recession has really hit a lot of people who were probably doing OK but now are put below the poverty line. People are coming to us for emergency assistance, food, shelter, clothes. The numbers are extraordinary.”51 – Chief executive officer, Catholic Charities

“When I first started here in ’08, if we had 80 families, 90 families come in one distribution day, that was a big day. Now we have routinely 260, 280 families come.”52 – Executive director, Aurora Area Food Pantry.

“People are here because they honestly and truly can’t find work. It didn’t used to be that way.”53 – Director of a homeless shelter


The politicians quoted represent both state and federal office holders and are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. They constitute 17 percent of the quotes in our sample. Quotes from state office holders appear in articles about state budget battles, with Republicans and Democrats sparring  over cutting back entitlement programs. The following statements by Michigan state representatives are illustrative:

Republican: “In this state, we are losing hard-working families and taxpayers and gaining people who were moving here for our entitlement programs. The bill is designed with the simple idea that there should be a safety net but it should not be a lifestyle.”54

Democrat: “Sometimes you’ve got what’s fiscally sound, and you’ve got what is morally and ethically the right thing to do. Those don’t always jell well together. You can’t take grandmas away and put them on the street, and you can’t take milk from babies.”55

Members of Congress are, for the most part, quoted in the context of the extremely partisan debates over health care reform in 2009, and the lowering of the federal deficit by cutting back on the food stamp program in 2013. For example:

Democrat: “We want to eliminate fraud and abuse, but we’re not going to try to balance the budget on the backs of these disabled children.”56 – Member of Congress, D-Ga.

Republican: “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the  country.”57– Member of Congress, R-Tenn.

Researchers and analysts

The quotes in this category, which are 17 percent of the total, are about evenly divided between academics and researchers and analysts from research institutes. Areas of expertise include health policy, economics, demography, and education policy. Institutes considered progressive-leaning, such as the Urban Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Commonwealth Fund, the Center for American Progress, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies are all represented. Only one  researcher from a conservative institute (the libertarian Cato Institute) is quoted. Academics, all of them expressing a progressive outlook and emphasizing systemic causes of poverty, appeared as guest panelists in several broadcasts.

Quotes included:

“Poor and low-income children begin school as curious as affluent children. We know from research that what predicts their comparatively lower school success are the lack of sufficient ‘inputs’ into their educational lives.”58 – Professor of Education, Stanford   University

“There’s been a suburbanization of poverty. The notion of poverty being only in inner cities and isolated rural areas is increasingly out of step with reality.”59 – Demographer with Brookings Institution

“We’ve basically seen a lost decade. We had a plutocratic boom. Then we have egalitarian recessions. Taken together, only the top ends are growing, on average. For the typical American family, the 2000s have been a disaster.”60 – Economist, Harvard University

“The asthma problem here is really a problem of poverty. If you’re poor, you don’t have time, you don’t have money, you can’t get refills easily and you have triggers in the environment you can’t deal with. That’s what makes it so difficult to manage.”61 – Researcher, Urban Institute


School superintendents, principals, and teachers are quoted in stories about poor children and the educational system, and represent 16 percent of all quotes. Their comments tend to underscore the importance of providing social supports to students from poor families.

“I can’t teach science to a kid whose father went to jail the night before. Sometimes you have to let some of the academics go and focus on social and emotional needs.”62
– Teacher in Cincinnati

“The traditional system hasn’t met their needs. There’s more than just academics at stake. It’s basically systemic poverty. They fall through the cracks in the first or second grade, and the rest of their life stays on that path.”63 – Superintendent of proposed charter school system in Arkansas

Poor people

The voices of poor people represent 13 percent of the quotes, and they appear in both print and broadcast coverage. Many of the quotes are from the newly poor and describe a sense of fear and shame about falling into poverty and even homelessness. Another frequent theme is the difficulty of getting by on minimum wage jobs. For example:

“Just when someone is moving forward, the rug is ripped out from under them. This cycle pushes people deeper into poverty than they were before they took the job. This system needs to change in order for people like myself to forge a better future for myself and my children, one where I will never need to turn to public assistance again.”64 – Woman discussing the “cliff effect”

“I always had my own place, my own car, bought my own food. I was making it. Then this happened. I’ve been working and paying taxes my whole life, and now all of a sudden I can barely get into the door for an interview. I’m a strong guy. I can work. I know I don’t belong here.”65 – Man in a homeless center

Reporter: Ben and Sue Harbett’s comfortable life in Naperville, Illinois, has taken an abrupt turn in the last five years—they both lost their jobs.

Ben Harbett: I came home and said, “Remember how we thought things couldn’t get worse when you got laid off?”

Reporter: A solidly middle class two-income household became a non-income household. Once volunteers at the local food bank, they became clients.

Sue Harbett: I didn’t tell a lot of people. I told mainly my closest friends.

Reporter: Ben is working again, packing ties, but they have gone from an income of one hundred fifty thousand dollars to thirty thousand dollars.

Ben Harbett: We just have to live a different lifestyle for right now, at least.66

Opinion & Commentary

It is on the opinion pages of the print media, on left- and right-leaning television shows, and in the blogosphere that columnists, commentators, advocates, and experts debate the causes of poverty and the government’s responsibility to reduce or eradicate it. We found 11 columns and op-eds, 11 broadcasts, and 12 blogs that, taken together, reflect an ongoing debate and a deep divide among these opinion leaders. Progressive voices outnumber conservative voices in our sample of print and broadcast pieces by a ratio of five to one. Since we chose to analyze an equal number of left- and right-leaning blogs, opinions are more evenly divided in our sample of blog posts. All three years are represented.

The progressive pieces carry a number of concerns and arguments. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Our political leaders and society at large have turned their backs on the poor. For politicians, including President Obama, ignoring poverty is a political calculation. For the general public, it is simply easier not to think about society’s outliers.
    • “Poor people are invisible in our nation’s capital. Republicans defend the affluent, calling them ‘job creators.’ Democrats champion the middle class, and those boldest stand with ‘working families.’ The poor go without mention.”67 – Jesse Jackson
    • “The poor are invisible. The poor are growing exponentially in this country, but at the same time being rendered invisible. Poverty is at the periphery of our political conversation and it ought to be at the epicenter.”68 – Tavis Smiley
    • “In today’s America, poverty and homelessness can easily seep beneath the wall we erect in our minds to define it.”69 – Charles Blow
  • By ignoring poverty we are losing the opportunity to create a better future for all of us. Endemic poverty saps our strength as a nation; dealing with it effectively lifts all boats.
    • “Georgia cannot afford, financially or morally, to ignore child poverty. … Children who live in poverty are more likely to have poor educational outcomes and poor health and to engage in criminal activity. The impact touches all Georgians. Persistent poverty prevents Georgia from becoming a prosperous state with educated productive workers and stable families.”70– Clare S. Richie, Georgia Budget & Policy Institute
    • “Let’s focus on reducing joblessness and poverty. Our next mayor must lead a citywide conversation about economic justice and how to implement policies that will increase the income and opportunities for all Bostonians. If effectively implemented, these policies could lift families and neighborhoods. To do less will maintain the status quo, or even worse, the gap will widen.”71 – Don Gillis, Economic Development Industrial Corporation of Boston
    • “What I think we need to do is make sure everyone understands we are in this together. This is not about us against each other. The 100 percent benefits when people eat, when children get nourished. The longitudinal studies indicate children that get food stamps do better. They have a higher graduation rate from high school. More go to college. This is a benefit for our entire nation.”72 – The Rev. Al Sharpton
  • Conservatives argue that “personal responsibility” is the solution to entrenched poverty and that the government’s role in ameliorating poverty should be a minor one. But the causes of poverty are systemic, and government—and society as a whole—have a responsibility to find solutions.
    • “My colleagues on the other side of the aisle and newscasters like O’Reilly do not have a clue how poor people live. The fact of the matter is that a majority of poor folks work. The problem is that people might work one, two, three jobs, but they don’t earn enough now in order to support themselves and that’s a problem of our society overall.”73 – Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.
    • “I cringe when I hear people say responsibility for student achievement and the blame for struggling schools rests largely upon parents’ shoulders. Why? Because that perspective slides into: We as schools, as teachers, as a society, can’t do anything with these kids. Their parents didn’t prepare them.”74 – Tina Griego, Denver Post columnist
    • “Republicans have become the party of ‘blame  the  victim.’ Whatever your  lesser lot in life, it’s completely within your means to correct, according to their logic. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and desperation aren’t violence to the spirit but motivation to the will. If you want more and you work harder, all your problems will disappear. Sink or swim. Pull yourself up. Get over it. Of course, that narrow conservative doctrine denies a broader reality: that there are working poor and chronically unemployed—people who do want to work, but who remain stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.”75 – Charles Blow
  • The government can make a difference; anti-poverty programs can work.
    • “In the age of inequality, such anti-poverty policies are more important than ever, as higher inequality creates both more poverty along with steeper barriers to getting ahead, whether through the lack of early education, nutrition, adequate housing, and a host of other poverty- related conditions that dampen ones chances in life.”76 – Jared Bernstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
    • “SNAP benefits [food stamps] not only reduce food insecurity and poverty this year; they also reduce poverty in the next generation. Recent research that tracked children into adulthood found that families’ access to food stamps improved their infants’ health and birth weight. Children who benefited from the program later posted better health, higher educational attainment, less heart disease, and, for women, greater earnings and less reliance on welfare as adults.”77 – Sheldon Danziger, Russell Sage Foundation
    • “The poor, we’re taught to believe, will always be with us. But we know how to reduce poverty. When Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty, millions were given hope. The Job Corps, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, the Teacher Corps, a rising minimum wage, and much more—these programs worked.”78 – Jesse Jackson

Conservative arguments can be summarized as follows:

  • The main cause of poverty is the breakdown of the two-parent family and the rise of “out-of-wedlock births.”
    • “If you do three things you won’t wind up in poverty. Finish high school. Don’t have a baby until you are married. Don’t have a baby until you are at least 20 years old. People who did those three things, only eight percent of them wound up in poverty. People who didn’t 79 percent wound up in poverty.”79 – Journalist Bernie Goldberg
    • “Another area of great concern would be the fact that 73 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock. When this occurs, in most cases the educational pursuits of the mothers are terminated and the babies are condemned to a life of poverty and deprivation, which makes them more likely to end up in the penal system or the welfare system.”80 – John Hayward, columnist
    • “The real cause of poverty is the breakdown of the two-parent family and births out of wedlock. No other social factor comes closer to explaining why some people are poor and others aren’t.”81 – Kyle Wingfield, columnist
  • The free enterprise system holds the best hope for pulling people out of poverty. The government should just get out of the way.
    • “Public policy should promote free enterprise growth because the free enterprise system does not leave people behind.”82 – Kyle Wingfield, columnist
    • “Republican economic policies are good for the poor: Republicans encourage the creation of wealth, which tends to drive out poverty.”83 – Nicholas Frankovich, National Review editor
  • Poverty programs and entitlements don’t work; they just make poor people more dependent on government handouts.
    • “So now we have millions of poor people in America and the government is flooding them with entitlements. So in some states you can make up to $40,000 in entitlements if you don’t work. That I believe is creating a poverty class that doesn’t want to work because they have enough. They get color TV, cell phone, computers; and it’s unending, it’ll keep coming in.”84 – Bill O’Reilly, journalist
    • “Today, the government is issuing electronic benefits transfer cards and even recruiting for enrollment. The government is issuing free cell phones. This is not the dream [Martin Luther] King wanted. It’s the nightmare of dependence.”85 – William Bigelow, writer for Breitbart
    • “We’ve had decades of government programs, entitlement spending. You still see the disparity numbers, you still have those numbers you’ve showed us earlier about the African-American unemployment rate, about the challenges to joining the middle class. The reality is, it’s time for a new approach.”86  – Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana



9 Steven A. Rosenberg, “Low-Rated Schools Show Improvement; Changes Made to Help Students Focus on Studies,” Boston Globe, October 13, 2013.

10 Evie Blad, “Charter School Plans Face Opposition,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 27, 2009; Jillian Kay Melchior, “DOJ vs. Louisiana School Choice: A Cynical Maneuver,” National Review Online, September 24, 2013.

11 Valerie Strauss, “There from the Start,” Washington Post, October 10, 2011.

12 See, for example, Sarah Carr, “Fighting for an Early Edge,” Times-Picayune, September 19, 2009; Catherine Candisky, “Ohio
Led States in Preschool Cutbacks,” Columbus Dispatch, October 23, 2009.

13 Catherine Candisky, “Ohio Led States in Preschool Cutbacks,” Columbus Dispatch, October 23, 2009.

14 MSNBC special, “About Our Children,” September 20, 2009.

15 Maria Cancian was recently nominated by President Obama to be assistant secretary for children and families (family support) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The University of Wisconsin’s news story by Megan Costello appears here:

16 “Record 46.3 Million Americans in Poverty,” American Morning, CNN, September 14, 2011.

17 “America Now: The Town that Jobs Forgot; Residents of Millen, Georgia, Dealing with Slowing Economy and Unemployment,” NBC News, August 14, 2011.

18 American Morning, CNN, September 14, 2011.

19 Sabrina Tavernise, “Reading, Pa., Knew It Was Poor. Now It Knows Just How Poor,” New York Times, September 27, 2011.

20 Alana Samuels and Duke Helfand,“6 Million in State Live in Poverty; The Rate Creeps up for the 4th Year in a Row,” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2011.

21 Francine Knowles, “Poverty Seeping into Suburbs; Job Scarcity is the Main Reason for Increasing Numbers of Newly Poor,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 2011.

22 Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise, “Poor Are Still Getting Poorer, but Downturn’s Punch Varies, Census Data Show,” New York Times, September 15, 2011.

23 Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise, “Poor Are Still Getting Poorer, but Downturn’s Punch Varies, Census Data Show,” New York Times, September 15, 2011.

24 Carol Morello and Dan Keating, “Million More Thrust into Poverty,” Washington Post, September 11, 2009; Francine Knowles, “Poverty Rate: 14.1%; More than 46 Million below Mark in U.S.,” Chicago Sun Times, September 14, 2011.

25 Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Annual Kid’s Count report,

26 CBS Morning News, August 17, 2011.

27 CNN Sunday Morning, August 21, 2011.

28 Alfred Lubrano, “As Many as 8 of Every 10 Welfare Applications in 2013 Denied by Pa., Inquirer has Found,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 16, 2013.

29 Burt Hubbard, “The Cliff Effect,” Denver Post, August 18, 2013.

30 Heather Knight, “S.F. Food Banks Starving for Funds,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 2011.

31 The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, September 22, 2009.

32 Lisa Wangsness, “All Sides Go on Attack As Senator Issues Health Plan,” Boston Globe, September 17, 2009.

33 John Fritze, “Health Care Bills Leave Millions Uninsured; No Version Would Result in Total Coverage,” USA Today, October 26, 2009.

34 Bruce Alpert, “State Refuses Another Provision of Health Law,” Times-Picayune, August 23, 2013.

35 Karen Tumulty, “Obamacare is Here, with a Long Way to Go,” Washington Post, October 1, 2013.

36 John Hurdle, “Making the Safety Net More Visible,” New York Times, August 31, 2013.

37 John Cote, “City to Pay for 200 Jobs Using Funds from Feds,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 2009.

38 Alfred Lubrano, “Hunger Experts, Meeting in Phila., Stew over ‘Food Desserts,’” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 23, 2011.

39 Julie Bosman, “Cash Incentive Program for Poor Families Is Renewed,” New York Times, September 21, 2009.

40 Robin Shulman, “Harlem Program Singled Out as Model; Obama Administration to Replicate Plan in Other Cities to Boost Poor Children,” Washington Post, August 2, 2009.

41 Rita Price, “Philanthropy; Family Role in Education Sought,” Columbus Dispatch, September 2, 2013.
42 John Cote, “City to Pay for 200 Jobs Using Funds from Feds,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 2009.

43 Julie Bosman, “Cash Incentive Program for Poor Families Is Renewed,” New York Times, September 21, 2009.

44 Robin Shulman, “Harlem Program Singled Out as Model; Obama Administration to Replicate Plan in Other Cities to Boost Poor Children,” Washington Post, August 2, 2009.

45 Francine Knowles, “Poverty Rate: 14.1% More than 46 Million Below Mark in U.S.,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 14, 2011.

46 Carol Morello and Dan Keating, “Millions More Thrust into Poverty,” Washington Post, September 11, 2009.

47 Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise, “Poor Are Still Getting Poorer, but Downturn’s Punch Varies, Census Data Show,” New York Times, September 15, 2011.

48 Gary Pettus, “Summit Focuses on Reaching Poor,” Clarion-Ledger, August 18, 2011.

49 Bruce Alpert, “State Refuses Another Provision of Health Law,” Times-Picayune, August 23, 2013.

50 Burt Hubbard, “Census Report: Comparing 2008 with 2000 Poverty Hits Harder across Front Range,” Denver Post, September 29, 2009.

51 Francine Knowles, “Poverty Seeping into Suburbs,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 2011.

52 Francine Knowles, “Poverty Seeping into Suburbs,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 2011.

53 Sabrina Tavernise, “Reading, Pa., Knew it Was Poor,” New York Times, September 27, 2011.

54 Monica Davey, “Families Feel Sharp Edge of State Budget Cuts,” New York Times, September 7, 2011.

55 Monica Davey, “Families Feel Sharp Edge of State Budget Cuts,” New York Times, September 7, 2011.

56 Patricia Wen, “Children’s SSI Program Examined; Research Cites a Cycle of Dependency,” Boston Globe, October 28, 2011.

57 Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “On the Edge of Poverty, at the Center of a Debate,” New York Times, September 5, 2013.

58 Brenda Bernet, “7 Poor Schools on List for High Marks,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 13, 2013.

59 Jason De Parle and Sabrina Tavernise, “Poor Are Still Getting Poorer, but Downturn’s Punch Varies, Census Data Show,” New York Times, September 15, 2011.

60 Carol Morello and Dan Keating, “Millions More Thrust Into Poverty,” Washington Post, September 11, 2009.

61 Brigid Schulte, “D.C. Clinic Aims to Curb Epidemic of Kids’ Asthma,” Washington Post, October 13, 2013.

62 Javier C. Hernandez, “Candidates for Mayor See Cincinnati as a Model for Schools in New York,” New York Times, August 12, 2013.

63 Evie Blad, “Charter School Plans Face Opposition,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 27, 2009.

64 Greg Kaufmann, “This Week in Poverty: The Expert Testimony of Tianna Gaines-Turner,” The, August 9, 2013.

65 Francine Knowles, “Poverty Seeping into the Suburbs,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 2011.

66 NBC Nightly News, September 17, 2013.

67 Jesse Jackson, “We Ignore Poverty, But it is on the Rise,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 20, 2011.

68 Tavis Smiley on CNN Newsroom, August 11, 2011.

69 Charles Blow, “A Town Without Pity,” New York Times, August 10, 2013.

70 Clare S. Richie, Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, quoted in “Georgia is Failing its Poor Families,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 16, 2009.

71 Don Gillis, Economic Development Industrial Corporation of Boston, quoted in “Poverty Must Be a Top Priority for Candidates,” Boston Globe, August 17, 2013.

72 The Rev. Al Sharpton, appearing on Politics Nation, MSNBC, September 18, 2013.

73 Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Politics Nation, MSNBC, August 27, 2013.

74 Tina Griego, “Morning Brew: Who Helps the Parents Succeed?” Denver Post, September 10, 2009.

75 Charles Blow, “A Town Without Pity,” New York Times, August 10, 2013.

76 Kevin Drum, “We Can Reduce Poverty If We Want To. We Just Have To Want To,”, September 26, 2013.

77 Sheldon H. Danziger, “The Mismeasure of Poverty,” op-ed, New York Times, September 18, 2013.

78 Jesse Jackson, “We Ignore Poverty, But it is on the Rise,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 20, 2011.

79 Bernie Goldberg on The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News Network, October 12, 2011.

80 John Hayward, “Ben Carson Tells It Straight,”, August 28, 2013.

81 Kyle Wingfield, “Expose Real Roots of Poverty,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 23, 2011.

82 Kyle Wingfield, “The Spirit of Reagan in Rubio,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 28, 2011.

83 Nicholas Frankovich, “Conservative Catholics, the GOP, and the Pope,” National Review Online, August 3, 2013.

84 Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News Network, September 12, 2013.

85 William Bigelow, “Allen West Illuminates the True Unfulfilled Parts of MLK’s Dream,”, August 29, 2013.

86 Bobby Jindal on Meet the Press, NBC News, August 25, 2013.