Why you should cover poverty and families in your county:

  1. Mary Ellen Schoonmaker, an editorial writer and columnist for The Record in northern New Jersey, once asked the following question to a prominent journalist who specializes in covering poverty:”How can a reporter cover that most persistent of problems, poverty, today without making it boring and predictable, or guilt-tripping readers and turning them off? Do you focus on one injustice – say a corrupt housing authority – or try to connect the dots and cover all of the reasons, both individual and systemic, that poverty is entrenched in certain places in America?”

    Journalists often go into the profession with the belief that a single reporter can make a difference. In the same interview, the journalist, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., responds to Schoonmaker:

    “I think it’s possible for a reporter to encourage a community to give more thought to issues related to poverty, and perhaps to think about them differently. It’s important to make a case that there is a ‘but for the grace of God go I’ aspect to many of these stories. Readers who are not pore can relate especially to stories in which they could imagine themselves if their luck ran out, or if they were born into different circumstances. And because many people these days who aren’t poor feel under various financial pressures, there are ways to link their situations to the situations of the poor.”

  2. The reporter can provide leverage for policy change by shining light on a problem and raising questions about awkward issues that others cannot or are reluctant to champion.
  3. Given the state of the economy, the timing and significance of poverty is great. Concern about how families are faring during these times of uncertainty is on the minds of the public.


How to measure the opportunity to cover poverty and families in your county:

Answer these four questions:

  1. The editor and journalist alike look for stories with a timeliness element. Below are examples of news pegs that could result in a poverty story:
    • A local (or national) political campaign that focuses on poverty
    • Local programs or agencies sponsored by the county commission or city council receive
      grant money
    • A recent opinion poll is released (e.g. Georgian’s opinions as reflected in the Peach State
      Poll conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government
    • New initiative announced by a respected leader or organization (e.g. Georgia
      Department of Economic Development or a board at a local technical college)
    • New report released by an institution or researcher (e.g. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute’s economic outlook report and Dr. Diana Pearce’s 2008 Self-Sufficiency Standard for the State of Georgia)
    • Annual report announced by an organization or state agency that focuses on poverty-related issues (e.g. unemployment figures given by the Georgia Department of Labor or the U.S. Census report)
    • Data release or status update on changes within the economy or population (e.g. state rankings in economic development and the Kids Count annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation)
  2. Look around your community. How are work opportunities fluctuating in regards to business openings or closings?
  3. Which legislation addressed on city, county, state and/or national levels will have implications for families within your county? Some examples include the renewal of the federal farm bill that includes the Food Stamp Program and the S-Chip debate that affects funding for PeachCare in Georgia.
  4. What seasonal financial event, such as tax filing, is on the horizon? You could examine your community to find out if the IRS will establish VITA sites to assist low-income workers with the Earned Income Tax Credit.


A step-by-step approach to developing important and engaging stories

Look at your answers to the questions above. Which topic (or topics) offers the most opportunity to cover poverty and families in your county? Pick one for this step-by-step approach to finding and reporting important, engaging stories.

As with any story, you’ll need to:

  • Consult secondary sources
  • Locate key documents
  • Mine key sources of data
  • Interview sources
  • Observe the story in play

Let’s take, as an example, the topic of poverty and its larger context. What steps might you take to find and report a story about how poverty is framed in your county?

Step one: Consider different approaches to your story. Poverty is a complex and dynamic issue. In addition to the individual perspective, there is the systemic and structural relationship that should be considered. Different approaches to a story lead to different conclusions. The following list of questions were excerpted from the Society of Professional Journalists site in an online article entitled “Covering the heart of poverty, not just its victims” by Joanne Omang.

  1. Look beyond the obvious to what causes economic system failure? What creates economic well-being?
  2. How important are job training, individual education, hard work and perseverance as engines of the economy?
  3. What policy and employer choices might support economic well-being?
  4. Where are these ideas being modeled? Are these locales comparable to my state, community?
  5. Does globalization affect every type of job? What about nursing home workers, restaurant servers, retail clerks, security guard, teachers’ aides, and other service providers? Is there a trickle-down effect or not?
  6. Where have governments or employers invested in infrastructure such as good pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement? What have the results been? What prevents government or employers from investing in infrastructure?
  7. What does a good corporate citizen or community steward look like?
  8. What has happened to traditions and laws that ensure job safety, health care retirement benefits and equal opportunity?

Try some new approaches:

  1. Question policy-makers on their policies toward employers, not just toward workers.
  2. Outline the job trainer’s challenges—not just those of the people taking his class.
  3. Focus on the restaurant owner and her employment practices not just the struggling waitress.
  4. Interview the employer who can’t afford medicine for his sick child. Interview the small business owner who has chosen to find a way to offer health care.
  5. Profile the city planner who is trying to create jobs and not the jobless street person.

Step two: Identify related topics that could add context and perspective on issue such as early childhood learning and children mental health care. Other topics include immigrant families, social security, welfare, work supports, work family benefits, working poor, living wage, homelessness, juvenile delinquency, school achievement, and uninsured or underinsured people.

Step three: Identify a local connection.

Step four: Before you begin writing, ask yourself again how you plan to approach the story. How will you give it a human face? How do you plan to write the story in a way that does not feed the attitude that the poor are to be blamed for their plight? Can your story be linked to crime rates, school failures/successes, healthcare costs, family breakdowns, transportation, jobs and access to services?


Essential resources

Here are essential resources that should help you cover poverty and families in your county.

Key sources of data

  • Society of Professional Journalists online article is a good resource for additional tips for how to approach a poverty story. The article also contains additional links to poverty information. www.spj.org/divws4.asp
  • National Center for Children in Poverty provides state profiles on poverty and articles that help put poverty in context. Use the basic needs budget calculator feature to personalize numbers in your story. You can find the following invaluable story by plugging the title into a site search: “Ten important questions about child poverty and family” http://www.nccp.org/
  • U.S. Census Bureau features a “QuickFacts” function on the left-hand side of its homepage that allows a person to search state and county facts. A journalist could also use the Bureau’s official definition of poverty and how it is measured by the government for added context in a story. http://www.census.gov/ 
  • Kids Count is an initiative sponsored by The Annie E. Casey Foundation that attempts to track the status of children in each state. Countless data and other links are available on this site. http://www.aecf.org/MajorInitiatives/KIDSCOUNT.aspx
  • Georgia Family and Connection Partnership specializes in poverty data available for Georgia. Under the “Kids Count” tab, a journalist can find detailed information such as how many children are succeeding in local schools. http://www.gafcp.org/
  • Georgia Department of Labor provides unemployment statistics among other sources of data. http://www.dol.state.ga.us/
  • Georgia Department of Human Resources gives information about public health and family services, adoptions, frauds and vital records. http://dhr.georgia.gov/portal/site/DHR/ 
  • Initiative on Poverty and the Economy started in 2003 with the University of Georgia’s Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. The site includes seminal studies on persistent poverty in the south. http://www.poverty.uga.edu/

Key sources of documents

  • Georgia Budget and Policy Institute contains a document called the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Georgia. Inside this report a journalist can find county-by-county data on the income needed by families in this state to be self-sufficient. http://www.gbpi.org/
  • Foundation for Child Development publishes a study called the Child Well-Being Index (CWI) that describes how young people in the United States have fared since 1975 in seven key quality of life areas, including family economic well-being, health, safety/behavioral concerns, educational attainment, community connectedness, social relationships and emotional and spiritual well-being. http://www.fcd-us.org
  • Economic Policy Institute produces a comprehensive set of data and information on living wages. The site features three calculators: basic family budget, Simplified Family Credit and unemployment insurance. http://www.epi.org/ 
  • Georgia Health Foundation contains a list of grants issued to Georgia programs in 2007 that work towards solutions in health and poverty. http://www.gahealthfdn.org
  • Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies contains two helpful sites, including the Health Policy Center that provides evidence-based research and policy guidance on local and national levels. http://aysps.gsu.edu/ghpc/
  • The Fiscal Policy Center, also at GSU, gives in-depth census data and examines tax policy and reform. http://aysps.gsu.edu/frc/

Key sources for experts

  • University faculty
  • Policy center and institute experts
  • Nonprofit organization workers (examples are Community Action Agency, Family Connection, United Way, Voices for Georgia’s Children, and Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education)
  • Regional planning commissions
  • Federal government officials from the following departments:
    • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Regional Office
    • The Administration on Children and Families
    • Office of Community Services
    • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services
    • Maternal and Child Health Bureau
    • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
    • U.S. Department of Labor
  • State officials from the following departments:
    • Georgia Department of Human Resources
    • Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget
    • Department of Labor
    • Governor’s Office for Children and Families
    • Department of Community Health (includes PeachCare)
    • Council of Juvenile Court Judges
    • Department of Juvenile Justice
    • Development of Early Care and Learning (access to pre-K and child care)
    • Developmental Disabilities Council
    • Department of Education: Student Services and Support
    • Georgia Commission of Equal Opportunity (fair housing issues)
    • Department of Community Affairs (housing and homelessness)
    • Governor’s Council on Maternal and Infant Health
    • Georgia Board for Physician Workforce
    • Governor’s Office of Student Achievement
    • Governor’s Office of Workforce Development
    • Technical College System of Georgia (work ready programs)
    • Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law


Beeferman, Larry W. “The Asset Index: Assessing the Progress of States in Promoting Economic Security and Opportunity” (September 2002). Center on Hunger and Poverty, The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University.

Diversity: The Whole Story “Covering the heart of poverty, not just its victims.” Society of Professional Journalists. Online database.

Schoonmaker, Mary Ellen. “Keeping Poverty on the Page, Covering an old problem in new ways.” Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 2008). Database online.