In Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America, Diana Kendall argues, among other things, that the poor and homeless are unfairly and incompletely represented in US media. She cites as evidence shows like ER and CSI (and other non-acronymatic shows such as Law and Order), where the homeless and poor are crazy wild-eyed folks in need of medical attention they won’t be able to pay for or decorative red-herrings for the intrepid modern-day Poirots, respectively. I myself can’t furnish enough examples of the media depicting the homeless or poor as actual people whose struggles and challenges matter to argue her point.
With all the televisual focus on hotel heiresses and talentless singers and earnest crime solvers intent on making the world safe for law-abiding white people, it’s easy to read statistics such as the following without flinching: 35 million Americans living in poverty in 2006 (poverty, officially, means making less than around $21k/year for a family of 4); 17% of children under 18 living in poverty—that’s about 1 in 6.
If you do spend time meditating on those figures, which, again, our culture encourages us not to do, I suspect you’d become disturbed. But even if you get beyond the lack of direct focus and patent frivolity of the media-tainment industry, there’s another layer of protection against thinking deeply about the poor: the blame game. From the comfort of your partisan couch, you can bitch about your chosen enemy: corporate power and unfair institutional biases on the one couch, maybe, and shiftlessness and the moral hazard of government handouts on the other.
This multi-layered, insulating sheath, along with the intrinsically inert mindset watching cultivates, precludes acts of the imagination. Maybe all these poor people result from a problem of policy, a lack of leadership, or their own deficiencies, but yes I do believe I think they’re the result of a lack of imagining.
Turn away, with me—especially if you’re reluctant to talk to and laugh and eat with the actual poor—because there exists an endlessly interesting, dynamic and variegated place where one can gain powerful access to penurious lives.