Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Newsnight Thursday

Today Gavin Ensler of the BBC's flagship Newsnight program previews for us his upcoming report on poverty and race in America. We will, of course, have to watch the program in order to give an entirely fair assessment, but his preview does give us some idea of what to expect.

There are some hints that Ensler will depart from the conventional story line that we have come to expect. For example, he rightly points out that:

The simple fact is that most Americans in poverty are not black - whites make up most of the population, and most of the poor.

And, whatever the pictures from New Orleans seem to suggest, most black Americans do not live in poverty. There is a healthy black middle class, and of course many outstandingly successful African American citizens, from Colin Powell and Condi Rice to black business-people all over the US.

He also reveals that:

On Newsnight, we will also hear from a black community worker who says the fast-track to poverty is dropping out of high school, taking drugs, and getting pregnant as a teenager.

Avoid all that, and at least you have a chance of the American Dream.

An unusually non-"progressive" take on poverty indeed.

Unfortunately such welcome facts and ideas seem likely to be overshadowed by Ensler's apparent inability to rid himself of the usual BBC ticks and methods of framing the story. For example, he can't simply say that Newsnight has decided to look into the "twin issues of poverty and race" in America. No. Instead it is investigating those issues in "George Bush's America," as if the issues of poverty and race are somehow the product of Bush's term in office rather than perennial issues dating back decades.

He gives us the standard faux astonishment that poverty exists in the "richest country on earth". He repeats the usual, tired statistics, such as the"40 million uninsured" line (although he ups it to 50 million) without a hint of explanation, as if, by itself, such a statistic is meaningful. He even credulously repeats the same old canards about US child mortality rates relative to Cuba and China.

He also provides us with unexamined anecdotes that simply beg for a deeper analysis that is unfortunately absent. For example, he mentions how day laborers in the town he visited "swarm around" a van offering work for $3 an hour, which translates to a mere $6,000 a year. "In America," Ensler reminds us, "it is difficult to see how you can live on that." Well maybe, and yet there they are, living people, not zombies, working as day laborers. Perhaps there is something more to their stories than simply working for the impossible-to-live-on $6,000 a year?

As I said, it is not entirely fair to judge Ensler's report simply on this synopsis. Perhaps he will ultimately avoid the superficial treatment and Bush-baiting that his preview implies. However, keeping in mind that this is the BBC, our hopes should be kept to a realistic minimum.

Ensler's report airs Thursday night on Newsnight. I will endeavor to watch it and let you know what I think.


Blogger Richard John said...

Couldn't live on $6000 "in America". Well given the cost of living is a lot lower in America, clearly you would have no chance in Britain. Amazing really given this is around the sum of money given to pensioners in Britain.

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No rj, UK pensioners get a minimum income of £5700 pa ($10,250) & in addition will receive help with housing costs.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Mark Vassallo said...

I think you're unfair in your moan about the use of "Bush's America" phrase. Most leaders want their country to reflect their leadership (whether that's wise is a different matter), and there are enough references to Reagan's America or Thatcher's Britain (both positive and negative) for this to be sees as just another harmless piece of journo-speak.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...

Mark V,

I think that references to Thatcher's Britain or Reagan's America necessarily (and usually deliberately) evoke a sense of change from what came previously. Sometimes this is used to positive effect (say, the economic success of "Thatcher's Britain", as contrasted to the malaise that predated her) and sometimes it is used to negative effect (say, the alleged dearth of federal spending in "Reagan's America", as contrasted to the compassionate government that predated him). But it is pretty much always used to give a sense of change.

Therefore, to investigate poverty and race in "Bush's America" is, I think, necessarily to evoke a sense of contrast with what came before. Which is, of course, ridiculous. The issues of poverty and race have not apppreciably changed at all under Bush's administration.


12:25 PM  
Blogger the adventuress said...

He did not write 3 dollars per hour; he wrote 3 pounds per hour. Doesn't that translate to around $6 per hour at current exchange rates?

That comes in at around $9300 per year. A single person could live off of that in Georgia, though not handsomely. Georgia is rather cheap in the rural areas.

2:16 AM  
Blogger the adventuress said...

In addition, if you only made $9300 per year, you would get food stamps, Section 8 housing assistance, Medicaid, earned income credit, etc.

These benefits would bring your income up to around $23,000 per year or so -- none of which Mr. Esler bothers to explain to his readers.

2:18 AM  
Blogger The Gorse Fox said...

Gavin Esler wrote a book several years ago called "The United States of Anger". It's worth a read - some good anecdotes, some average reporting, and some stuff that make you punch the walls in fury. (Was just looking for it, but must have loaned it to someone, so I can't provide any pithy quotes)

5:10 PM  
Anonymous marife said...

Why would anyone in their right mind believe any statistics put out by Cuba. Fidel makes up any statistic he wants.

2:23 AM  

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