Invisible poor coming into focus?

There are some tentative signs that the recession may finally be able to do what Hurricane Katrina did not: Get the news media to pay attention to the 1 in 8 Americans — or more, depending on how you’re counting — who are living in poverty. Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a long essay by Barbara Ehrenreich decrying the media focus on the “Nouveau Poor” and noting that while the economic hard times have been hardest on the already-poor, they’ve all but disappeared from the public debate in favor of laid-off stockbrokers forced to limit their vacation travel. (To be fair, the already-poor were mostly never there to begin with.) Notes Ehrenreich bitterly: “‘Low-Wage Worker Loses Job, Home’ is nobody’s idea of news.”

That’s certainly been the case, but could it be changing? Witness today’s Wall Street Journal, which takes a look at rising welfare rolls that actually manages to dig deeper than the usual recitation of stats, citing my former radio comrade Liz Schott to the effect that though welfare rolls are rising, they’re still lagging far behind food stamp enrollments, a sign that there are plenty of needy unable to meet the strict income and work requirements imposed by welfare reform. “But people in between have the hardest time,” one food stamp recipient (and non-Nouveau Poor person) told the Journal. “You don’t make enough money to get by but you make too much to get help.”

The real test, of course, is to see whether this is a trend: While it’s hopeful that the Times piece says “First in a series,” the rest could end up all being about former yacht salesmen who are forced to buy their steaks at Costco. Stay tuned.

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