Ohio's Reality Helps Expose Poverty Myths

Screenshot from a video on Brooke Gladstone's reporting on poverty in Ohio. She's speaking with Jack Frech, retired welfare director for Athens County.
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Ohio is often talked about as a microcosm of America, with its diverse regions and resources. 

That microcosm also reflects some of the challenges our nation faces, like kinds of poverty and income inequality. 

Here are some snapshots of what some Ohioans are going through:

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MARGARET SMITH: “The reason I ended up in the shelter is because my son was shot outside of our house.”

CASEWORKER: “How old is he?”

MARGARET SMITH: “He’s 17.”

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NATASHA BOYER: “It was an eviction notice and they said that I had three days to get out, if I didn't pay the rent. This was only my second month being in Columbus.”

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CARLA SCOTT: “So would I sit up there and feel sorry for myself and look for a handout or do I advocate for myself and be proactive and go sell my plasma, like I did?”

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These voices were from the public radio show On The Media, which recently concluded a series busting myths about poverty.  The series used Ohio’s diversity as an entry point into the topic. 

I spoke about this with OTM co-host Brooke Gladstone, who began by explaining her show is not just about media or journalism…that this project fits, too:

GLADSTONE: “It is about all the ways that the world is filtered to us, and how we filter the world.  And some of these things are cultural and they’re spread through the media.  And this brings us around to poverty, believe it or not, because what we did essentially was organize it around the most common myths that accompany thoughts of poverty and of poor people.  And we focused principally on the myth of laziness, the myth of social mobility, and finally the myth of the safety net—that there is one robust enough to catch most people before they, you know, disappear into the quagmire of calamity after calamity which gets set off by one mistake when you’re poor and you have no resources to catch yourself.”

GANZER: “You pointed out that Athens County, Ohio, is kind of a go-to spot for reporters looking for a quick story about poverty.  Is that laziness do you think on the part of reporters just saying, ‘well, where do we go to find “poor people” to tell this story?’”

GLADSTONE: “It’s at worst a lack of imagination.  The fact that people are going at all is helpful.  The trouble is that there is no poverty beat, and people don’t stay.  You can say that about so many beats as the journalism industry gets hollowed-out.  There’s no one covering statehouses, there’s no one covering corruption on the local level, and there’s certainly no one trying to follow the condition of the poor.”

GANZER: “You did have imagination, you sent a producer to a plasma clinic at West 25th in Cleveland. People looking for money, needing money, and you say you offered a bus voucher. And you talked to Carla Renee Scott, a 30-year-old Clevelander.  She had a pre-mature baby.  And we talked about earlier that one thing can kind of send you on this spiral, and that happened to Carla.”

CARLA SCOTT: “She’s been through four surgeries already. At 23 weeks, she's only one pound and she had two perforated holes in her bowel. She now has two stomas on the side of her stomach that’s out with colostomy bags. But she's doing better. She's a fighter but thinking about doctors for her once she – she’s actually able to come home, setting up the Social Security and things like that, those are the things that I have to deal with long term. I’ve been doing a lot of footwork with that.”

GLADSTONE: “Now Carla was 30-years-old, she had worked her whole life since before she graduated high school, she even did some college.  She had lots of skills, and she had a boyfriend.  So a lot of the boxes that people who would judge her would tick off, were ticked-off.  This baby is born.  The baby has to stay in the hospital for many months.  Carla visits her every day.  The boyfriend just can’t hack it.  Carla can’t maintain her daily job because she has to keep leaving whenever the hospital needs an operation or a surgery authorized.  And so what you’ve got is a situation where she can’t maintain a job, she doesn’t qualify yet for certain kinds of help, and there is no cash.  Cash-assistance has pretty much vanished as welfare in this country.  So she went to the plasma clinic to sell her plasma in order to get bus fare.”

CARLA SCOTT: “I’ve always been the type of person when put [SNIFFLES] in a situation I try to champion through it, but this one right here is just - it’s very difficult. And – the last thing I ever wanted to do was sell my plasma, but if I have to go to a plasma center to at least have fare to go back and forth and change my clothes or just to eat, then that’s what I’m gonna do to be there for her.”

GANZER: “Something I’ve found in talking to people who would fall under the poverty line, is many times there’s not even a self-identification as poor, they can always point to somebody who’s suffering more than they are, or not doing as much to piece together some of these resources.  It’s not resignation, or ‘laziness.’  These people are actually working pretty hard just to keep their heads above water.”

GLADSTONE: “It is so hard.  As many psychologists have studied, it poses such a massive cognitive load when you have to calculate do you have enough money for gas to get to work, or should you buy food or should you buy medicine?  I mean, everybody sort of knows that this must go one, but I think what people don’t understand—and what I tried so hard to take a stab at conveying in the series—is what it means to live like that.  How you get up every day already exhausted, by trying to figure out how to get through it…no one works harder than the poor.”

GANZER: “You have a moment where you out yourself in a way, in how you understood poverty, what you’ve learned through this series.  Where are you now?”

GLADSTONE: “It’s a very good question.  I have to say that a day doesn’t go by when I realize how lucky I am.  When you look at the research, your situation is almost pre-ordained.  And any struggles that you may have gone through—and we’ve all gone through them—is really nothing compared to being born into a situation where there are no resources, no opportunities, no friends or family with money to help you in a tight spot.  And we don’t really remember the times just a little helping hand turned us around.  We don’t remember that, because we kind of expect life is kind of like that.  It’s not like that.  When you’re poor, living among the poor, you help each other as much as you can.  The bonds of kinship in poor neighborhoods are much greater than in wealthy ones.  But often it is just not enough.”

Brooke Gladstone is co-host of On The Media from WNYC. Find all of the parts of this series.  

 

You may also be interested in: Hard Choices And Tight Budgets: Food Insecurity In Northeast Ohio

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