Here’s another story about how the wealthy are dealing with this economic downturn: “As the Rich Get Poorer, Teenagers Feel the Crunch,” which catalogs how teens from affluent families are now getting after-school jobs to pay for their own expenses. One student makes $150 a week through tutoring and baby-sitting jobs, another $80 a weekend taking care of animals at a vet’s office. Allowances that were $100 a week have dropped to $60.
The absence of the low- and middle-income voices in these stories is unfortunate. Wealthy teens who are saving for “a ring, a necklace, a handbag” are now competing for jobs with poorer teens whose incomes are necessary to keep families afloat.
To be fair, the Times have covered at how lower-income families are doing, such as this piece on how the poor are scaling back on medications they can no longer afford, or this recent analysis of how some states’ welfare agencies are cutting their rolls despite growing unemployment. And its The Neediest Cases series is excellent. But stories like these make the omission of their voices in other stories ever more noticeable.
One explanation for the disparity between the two sets of stories may be the sections which assigned them and the reporters on the job. Stephanie Saul, who covers the pharmaceutical industry, medicine, and regulation, penned the story on scaling back on medication, and Jason DeParle, author of a book on the welfare system, wrote about the welfare crunch—while rock critic and former Details editor John Leland wrote the divorce piece. Elizabeth A. Harris, who wrote the rent piece, frequently writes for the real-estate section. It’s possible that reporters who cover “softer” beats may need to be edited more closely by the hard news side to ensure more rigorous reporting.
When the stories are taken as a whole, the Times’s coverage seems to draw distinctions between “wealthy” stories and “poor” stories, drawing artificial lines of income where commonalities may provide a thread of mutual understanding. Rent, divorce, and raising children are shared experiences, regardless of income level. But to only include the few wealthy individuals unnecessarily segregates the stories about these two interrelated groups of people, relegating lower-income stories to welfare lines.
Simultaneously, the disparity in stories highlights, but doesn’t address, the disparity of conditions between those rich and poor. While those New Yorkers who can afford $8500 rents are saving $1100 per month, those who can only pay $1100 may be getting squeezed out. Brave reporting could confront those differences, but divided storytelling creates a further rift.
The fascination with wealth is an affliction that spares no one. On MTV’s ultimate wealth bonanza, “My Super Sweet 16,” prodigal sons and daughters are celebrated for their extravagant birthday parties. And, on the other side of the spectrum, the business press makes heroes of CEOs. But the tough times ahead call for sober assessments of the quality of life of all Americans, not just the rich.