Behind a Journalism Nonprofit That's Putting a Human Face on Poverty

Tens of millions of Americans live in poverty or near-poverty—including many people who work full-time—and yet you won't hear much about their challenges in the mainstream media. That lack of attention spurred Barbara Ehrenreich to start the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) five years ago. This nonprofit media outfit aims "to put a human face on financial instability" and "change the national conversation around both poverty and economic insecurity."

A celebrated author and anti-poverty activist, Ehrenreich’s best-known work is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a 2001 exposé on just how difficult it is to survive on minimum-wage service jobs. To better understand her topic, Ehrenreich didn't just conduct interviews; she worked minimum wage jobs and tried to survive on her meager earnings. Now, along with Executive Editor Alissa Quart, a veteran author and journalist, Ehrenreich brings this same spirit to EHRP. The nonprofit’s mantra: Report on poverty as if you live it, and also give those who are living it a chance to write about what they’re going through.

As you may have heard, these are dark days for traditional media outlets. According to Ehrenreich and Quart, major news outlets can only offer trifling sums for in-depth coverage of poverty. Like other niche nonprofit journalism organizations, EHRP aims to step forward in an area where commercial journalism has been pulling back. One difference, though, is that this niche is about the lives of a good chunk of the American population. 

Since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been tracing an outpouring of funds for media outlets working to advance the public interest. Digital tycoons like Pierre Omidyar and Craig Newmark have made a big showing here lately, but so have established foundations like Knight and Barr. Plenty of money has also come from small donors who see the need for quality journalism.

EHRP hasn't experienced the same kind of "Trump bump," and it doesn't operate on anything close to the scale of such leaders in nonprofit journalism as ProPublicaThe Marshall Project or Grist. Fundraising for reporting on poverty has proven challenging since Ehrenreich first launched this effort. 

But EHRP is persistent and now counts a number of top funders among its backers. The organization got its start at the Institute for Policy Studies, where Ehrenreich was a board member, with initial support from the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. In time, the Annie E. Casey Foundation also pitched in. Quart cited the JPB Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, and the NoVo Foundation as major current supporters. EHRP also credits the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Public Welfare Foundation, and the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy as funders.

EHRP’s interest in bottom-up reporting by those struggling economically is distinctive and important. The organization has arranged for many stories by low-income writers and content producers to be co-published in major outlets. Co-published items have appeared in a wide variety of outlets (38 publications in 2016), including the New York Times and The Guardian, magazines like Cosmopolitan, and regional publications and progressive outlets like AlterNet and The Nation. This has given some low-income writers the springboard they needed to broaden their audiences and begin writing profitably. In other words, EHRP's model aims both to bring new voices into the public debates over economic hardship and enable those struggling to earn more money. 

Hearing directly from people affected by America's harsh economy can shed new light on issues of poverty—which is refreshing, given that so much anti-poverty work and analysis is done by well-meaning people who haven’t actually experienced what they’re fighting against. One vivid example is Melissa Chadburn’s 2015 piece on how the “resilience” concept exposes a creeping bureaucratic disconnect between white-collar nonprofit employees and the people they’re supposed to serve. Another piece questions smoking bans: Do they improve public health or punish the lower class?

As you’d expect, class looms large in much of this work. It spans cities, where rich and poor are increasingly segregated, as well as rural and suburban areas. In many ways, the scorning of the “elite media” by Donald Trump’s supporters was an inevitable result of shrinking newsrooms outside New York and Washington, D.C. Quart emphasized EHRP’s rural coverage and her ongoing efforts to reach out to regional and local publications in majority-Republican areas. 

EHRP still doesn't have anything close to the resources it needs to cover what is a depressingly large beat in a country where a good swath of the working population makes under $20,000 a year. But its growth and expansion underscore that more funders grasp a fundamental fact about financial insecurity in America: That as long it remains out of sight and out of mind, progress toward a fairer, more inclusive society will remain elusive.