Spotlight Exclusives

Do First-Hand Stories of Poverty Make a Difference?

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Efforts to lift up the experiences of those in poverty have been gaining traction among advocates as a critical tool for drawing attention to the problem. Some of these personal stories have caught the attention of legislators, including Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), who on the House floor last July read stories written on paper plates by struggling Ohio residents. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


As more organizations begin using this tool, Spotlight has launched a Story Bank to collect these projects in one place. For example, Voices of Poverty chronicles stories of hardship nationwide, and a joint project with Half in Ten and the Coalition on Human Needs even has a few stories from elected officials and a Cabinet Member. Some campaigns focus on capturing voices from a specific population, such as older adults or moms.


Now some in the media have been asking just how effective storytelling can be in building political support for anti-poverty efforts.


In a recent blog post in The New York Times, Douglas MacKinnon, who worked for three Republican presidents and most recently wrote a memoir about a childhood spent in abject poverty, wonders with frustration whether the real-world experiences of those in poverty ever inspire political action — even when they attract attention. He writes, “In promoting my memoir, I۪ve been on a number of television and radio programs, which have been broadcast across the nation. Not one elected official has gotten in touch with me to ask if I might want to discuss poverty, my experience and possible solutions.” Contrasting poverty with other issues, he adds, “In the past, when I wrote a column on, say, the space program, or immigration, I heard from certain politicians. But on poverty, never.”


That doesn۪t mean the stories of those who are poor have no role to play. MacKinnon describes the widespread public reaction he has received from his work, and Washington Post columnist (and new Spotlight Advisory Council member) Michael Gerson has discussed the power of stories, both in a recent column and at Spotlight۪s January event, “The Politics of Economic Opportunity: Will Growing Poverty Affect Election 2012?”


During a panel focused on the media and coverage of poverty, he stated  that the “most useful purpose of the media of professionals in the media, not commentators like most of us here is to have a phenomenology of the poor. It’s to reveal what their actual struggles are. Whether its foreclosures or whether its people coming back from prison that face impossibly hostile environments or whether it’s people dealing with family structure problems or other things. I think, the specificity is what challenges(the) vagueness of that ideological debate.”


As policymakers continue to make decisions that have a significant impact on low-income people, OOTS is grateful to see commentators like MacKinnon and Gerson discuss what role the voices of the poor should play in this important conversation.

Posted by Sarah

Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn’t always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact or


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