Program lifts aspiring writers from poverty, infuses media with fresh voices

Cumberland

Stephanie Land had all but given up on becoming a writer in 2015. She was like many of the subjects who appear in articles about the poor–a single, thirtyish mother of two little girls from Missoula who worked long hours as a cleaner and collected food stamps. To pay for pizza dinners, she bounced checks. She earned $10 per hour posting ads for local businesses on bathroom stalls of bars, with the infant strapped on because she couldn’t afford childcare. At one point, her family lived in a shelter.

Land, who wanted to capture her life experiences on the page, published the odd article, writing at night with the baby curled on her lap. But she couldn’t survive on the low publishing fees. Then she heard about the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a newish online publication devoted to inequality. Land pitched an editor, so hurriedly that she spelled the name wrong. No matter. The founder, acclaimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, took Land under her wing and helped sell a memoir about her years as a maid. The EHRP also placed an essay in The New York Times about the class politics of decluttering. The story was widely shared and generated 309 comments. Land has since gotten enough assignments to quit her menial jobs.

“I have been dreaming about becoming a writer since I was 10,” says Land, now 30. “The EHRP made it real.”

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Stephanie Land

Ehrenreich launched the project in 2012 to change the national conversation about America’s 47 million poor people, and “to put a face on financial instability,” as the site describes. One mission is to find authentic stories that startle readers of all social classes, an example being of a freelancer who sold blood plasma to pay bills. The other aim is to illuminate the path for struggling writers who didn’t learn how to network at elite journalism schools. By commissioning, editing, and placing stories at national publications, the project is giving folks like Land their big break. The project pays them a dollar a word (a generous rate), in addition to whatever fee they earn from publications that run their pieces.

EHRP stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post and The Atlantic, to name just a few. Movie star Mark Ruffalo tweeted a piece about the rich breaking rules. John Oliver used a film about restrictive abortion laws as a jumping point to discuss reproductive rights.

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Inspiration for the site came from Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. For the book, the author worked variously as a waitress, cleaning woman, and Wal-Mart salesperson to test how Americans survive on the minimum wage. She found that many could not.

That revelation continued to preoccupy her. In 2009, she was talking to The New York Times about doing a series about the recession’s impact on people already in poverty. “I was well into the reporting when I realized that the amount they were paying me would not cover the expenses, which was a shock. I thought, ‘You have to be wealthy to write about poverty?’”

So she used her star power to persuade the Institute of Policy Studies, a progressive think tank on whose board she sat, to support a new venture. The site vaguely follows the nonprofit model of The Marshall Project, the online criminal justice outfit, if the latter hired convicts to write about jail.

I’m still putting most of my content together on an iPhone with a cracked face. I’m still poor, but working.”

 

The EHRP quickly garnered support from the Ford Foundation and Open Society to generate about 70 stories a year–photography, video, narrative features, graphic novels, even a documentary film. About a third of the offerings are by journalists who actually live in hardship.

Ehrenreich stresses she is not playing advocate, and wants to humanize and “surprise” rather than inspire pity.

“We don’t do sad stories about noble people crushed by poverty. Forget that.” She warned that her latest story idea “may disgust you.” It paints the misery that smoking bans create for the poorest 25 percent.

To make poverty sexy for the one percent, the site creators went for a stark look that vaguely calls to mind Depression-era photos of Walker Evans. Artsy portraits of contributors decorate the pages rather than graphs on income disparity. 

“We’re colorful, satirical people who are allergic to conventional storytelling,” explains Alissa Quart, the executive editor. “One woman wrote about her terrible teeth because she lacked dental care. The straightforward way to tell it would be an Op/Ed about policy.” A poet and cultural critic, Quart is currently working on a book about the eroding middle class.

She sees EHRP as an immersive undertaking, with writers losing themselves in reporting for weeks, contributors writing about their own lives. “These are ways to refresh the eye and get around the fatigue, so that you’re in it rather than staring at a screen.”

One notable example is John Koopman’s account of his descent from war correspondent, to strip club bouncer, to Uber driver.

The reporters don’t simply cite numbers from economists. “It’s hard to do poverty in a novel way. I see people falling back on the same tropes and clichés,” explains Atlantic Associate Editor Joe Pinsker. ”These pieces, however, are analytical and smart, coming from someone on the front lines.”

His magazine has run nine EHRP stories, his favorite being how Chipotle underpays its workers.

Writers are happy, too. Melissa Chadburn, who grew up in the foster care system in Los Angeles, wrote a piece about resilience for the website Jezebel. It was viewed 400,000 times, and she now fields regular queries from foundations about better practices. She recently sold a novel to Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

After Cryn Johannsen’s story on student debt suicides ran in the Huffington Post, she was booked on multiple radio and television programs. Donnell Alexander was living in motel rooms when the EHRP reached out to him. He has since gotten assignments with Rolling Stone and Time, and can afford to rent one-bedroom apartment in Portland.

“I’m still putting most of my content together on an iPhone with a cracked face,” Alexander says. “I’m still poor, but working. EHRP has helped keep me afloat, primarily. But there’s something else. Alissa and Barbara enabled me to do a lot of reporting I could not have afforded to undertake on my own. My Burns “patriots” piece, specifically, happened when I was flat broke.

Likewise for Melissa Bunni Elian. “I had been knocked down so many times,” she says about freelance life. The EHRP lifted her with a $1,000 grant to document gentrifying Yonkers. “It was, ‘Yes! Someone is counting on me.’” Now she has an editing job with NBC.

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An image from Bunni’s project on Yonkers: Angelina, Anna, and Angela Zimniak, who live in a low-income section of Yonkers, prepare to make beef tacos for dinner.

Looking ahead, Quart wants to see more films, video, and community outreach, especially with immigrants. There’s a new prize for young writers of color. She’d like to collaborate with museums and public spaces. She’s trying to reach more reporters outside the mainstream.

While the EHRP may fill a gap in American coverage, however, it remains to be seen if the project will become a permanent fixture on the media landscape. Quart still must persuade editors it’s okay to take content from nonprofits. Then there’s money. Foundations on which the group depends cannot guarantee unlimited support.

The prospect of no EHRP worries Darryl Wellington, who penned the blood plasma piece for The Atlantic. The article led to other assignments and a writing fellowship at the Center for Community Change. That gig ends in a few months, however, and at age 50 he’s not sure what’s next.

The life of a freelancer is precarious. I hope I never have to sell plasma again. It’s possible, though.”

 

“The life of a freelancer is precarious, “ he muses unhappily. “I hope I never have to sell plasma again. It’s possible, though.”

Stephanie Land, meanwhile, is savoring success while it lasts. On August 31, she pocketed $400 from her book advance and headed to the grocery store with her nine-year-old daughter. She promised the girl, Mia, that for the first time in her life she could buy whatever she wanted. Into the cart went donuts, fruit cups, her favorite yogurt drinks, Cookie Crisp cereal, chocolate chips, and a huge jar of Nutella. Mom treated herself to pickled beans and fancy mustards.

Watching the cashier ring up, Land blanched instinctively. Then she reminded herself they weren’t on food stamps any more.

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Judith Matloff teaches conflict reporting at Columbia. Her latest book, No Friends but the Mountains, examines war and geography.