Melissa Harris-Perry: The COVID-19 pandemic magnified financial instability and widened the margins of economic inequality in the United States. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 38% of households across the nation faced serious financial problems in the past few months.
A new limited series podcast called "Going for Broke," from the Nation Magazine and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is taking a look at the challenges that many Americans are facing right now. The series looks at these issues through personal stories of homelessness, job insecurity, and people just trying to pay the rent.
Lori Yearwood: The very first night I was in shock about being in a homeless shelter, in shock about being homeless, and so I wasn't thinking what's going to happen to me if I don't get any sleep. The thought of sleep maybe came within a week and then it started to dawn on me I'm not getting any sleep, I need to sleep, and so that was when the yearning for a good night's sleep started and it didn't stop for two years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's journalist Lori Yearwood talking about her experience with being unhoused from the first episode in the series. Here with me now is Ray Suarez, the host of "Going for Broke." He's also an author, journalist, and legend around the public radio world. Welcome back to The Takeaway, Ray.
Ray Suarez: Great to be with you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the introductory article for the podcast, you wrote, "Too much of American journalism consists of stories told by wealthy people to middle-class people about poor people." Such a critically important framework. Can you talk about why it's so important to hear firsthand from people who are experiencing these economic insecurities?
Ray Suarez: Some of it just comes from the power dynamic of the way we do journalism. It's pretty secure people who get to tell everyone else's story, and the poorer you are, or the poorer you become, the less often you're given the privilege of self-definition and self-explanation. What we're given even during a time when a lot of people are experiencing downward mobility or going into the teeth of the pandemic and its economic effects is a secure person's view of insecurity, rather than someone saying, "This is what my life is like, and this is what I need you to understand."
We thought that Going for Broke and the way we structured it was a way of, well, we can't change that overnight and change it in the vast multi-limbed beast of the American media, but we can start pushing in the other direction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you reflect a bit, help us to understand, certainly it is just part of how we do the news, but I'm wondering if there's also some presumptions here, presumptions that when people are telling their own story, they don't have like journalistic distance or something, or maybe that those who are experiencing financial and economic insecurity are somehow inherently untrustworthy in terms of getting their story right.
Ray Suarez: I think that's part of it. I think that's certainly an unspoken part of it. We never get handed an assignment by the assignment desk here, "Go talk to this poor person. We wouldn't be able to accept what they said unless you talk to them." That's in there like cinnamon in the pancake mix. You just-- it's in there, but--
Melissa Harris-Perry: I appreciate that you put cinnamon in your pancake mix. I do as well. Although I feel there are people who are going to be like, "What?"
Ray Suarez: It's an unspoken part of the whole scene without anybody actually having to articulate it, I guess is the way I would explain it to others. There are a lot of unspoken rules covering how we do poverty. Yes, the media is often sympathetic, but at the same time that it's sympathetic, it's often condescending and judgmental. Without saying it, you're saying, look at this person, why can't they get it together?
I see it as a consistent problem in the way the media does poverty. In part, because we have an unfortunate inheritance that goes all the way back to the 17th century of finding poverty to be a personal failing, rather than something that has to do with systems much bigger than you can control or reply to that have a big say over how you're doing at any given moment.
When the employment suddenly craters, that's not something you did, but there's a very old part of American reflex that finds that people's troubles must be a commentary on their own virtue, their own willingness to just pick themselves up and dust themselves off. There's a very old literature in this country that locates poverty and locates bad times in personal failings.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So much so, and so much so baked into our understanding of financial insecurity, of economic inequality that often those who are experiencing that hardship themselves, ourselves, do feel responsible for it. Don't often look to the system and will feel that sense of that kind of American work ethic, Horatio Alger story of, "I must have done this. I must be able to fix it on my own."
Ray Suarez: Which gives them a kind of a pass to systems that don't work for us and don't help us well enough when we need the help that willingness, that reflex to look at the self as the locus of this problem, lets the system off the hook I think when you think not what's the matter with what's going on, but what's the matter with me? Once you do that, you're saying, "I'll work this out."
When there are parts of this whole thing, whether it's homelessness, whether it's the blife ignorance of how several million people are going to pay their mortgages and their rent that's been in accruing over the last 21 months. We just think, "Well, this will take care of itself and people will do what they have to do," instead of saying, "Wow, I really was put behind the eight ball here that shouldn't happen." People think, "Wow, I have to fix this."
Melissa Harris-Perry: You are actually at the center of one of these stories, talking about your experience of finding yourself jobless, struggling with financial insecurity. Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up in that space?
Ray Suarez: As the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and I scoped out what this series would be like, the kind of stories it would tell, who we could enlist to talk about their own lives, the producer said, "Well, what about you?" I had had a long bout with unemployment after my last steady employer, Al-Jazeera America, declared bankruptcy, closed up shop, and put 800 people out of work.
I was not prepared for the kind of reception that I got in the marketplace. I began thinking, "Well, this will work out. I have a long solid resume, a good track record. I'm not a headcase. I'm a decent colleague. I show up to work every day. This is not going to be that hard. After 40 years, there will be somebody who wants me to do something." In fact, there wasn't anybody who wanted me to do anything.
It was a shock. It took some getting used to, it took a re-engineering of my expectations of what my early 60s were going to be like, and it also set off a kind of rage because the big voices in the culture tell people in the later chapters of their working life, "Don't retire, whatever you do, don't retire early, keep working, keep saving, don't take your social security check early. Don't tap into your retirement savings early, because you're going to live longer and you have to make sure that you're prepared, and you don't want to outlive your money," and here I am saying, "Okay, got it. Yes, I'm ready to do all of that."
There was such a shocking level of ageism in the marketplace that after a while it was just breathtaking, and then on top of that, I was diagnosed with cancer and then it just feels like the roof is coming in. You think, "All right, I struggled and I pushed and I shoved and I had my elbows out the way the folkways of the business ask me to do," and here I am. I get to this point in my life and I can't work, and now, work may be the least of my problems, I may be dying.
It was a time of contemplation. A time of stocktaking and self-recognition. I think as character-building exercises go, I wouldn't recommend it. It is grueling to both be struggling to live and struggling to work, but now that I'm on the other end of it, I think I've learned some pretty good lessons about a lot of things. As we scoped out this series, even though I am allergic to using capital 'I' in my writing, it's just not something I've done a lot, I figured, "All right, I listen to this." This suggestion that I make my story part of this series, "Okay, we'll try it out."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, Ray, that capital 'I' isn't so capital in that it is also first-person plural. That I is we. For so many of us who can relate to various parts of the story that you just told but also that even within this podcast series you are not the only journalist whose story is told. Just to take a little point of that, I'll be privileged here, talk to us a bit about the economic hardships experienced by journalists and what it says about our industry.
Ray Suarez: It would seem I think a lot of members of the audience, the readers, viewers, listeners if we said, "Hey, who do you think is making all this stuff because it seems like there's tons of stuff?" There's 850,000 podcasts. There's new networks all the time. There's new online publications all the time. This must be a golden age for employment in journalism. It would be natural to make that conclusion, I think, but quite the opposite is true.
There are actually fewer people making a full-time living as reporters than there were 20 years ago. That astonishing fact as we watch a broad ceaseless river of content flow out to the sea is just one small data point in what has been a crisis in journalistic employment even as more graduates are churned out of more BA programs and master's programs around the country only to enter a profession that is rethinking what the world of work is like.
Whether you have one boss or five. Whether you are a brand that you manage and cultivate and really just become a hired gun who works a day here and a day there for different employers all the time or have a consistent gig. The business model for how people get their information has been undergoing drastic, rapid, and crisis-driven change over the last two decades and the workforce has been part of that.
Experienced people, people with shelves and walls full of awards. People who I think have a legitimate reason to believe that there's a place for them in the business end up scuffling. I'm an active member and have been for a long time of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. I started to notice during the oh-oh's, and into the teens that every year more and more people had no affiliation on their conference badge.
You'd go to the annual meeting see old friends, veteran friends, people who had edited major regional newspapers. People who had been correspondence at big outfits and there'd be no affiliation on their badge because they were freelance, suddenly they were their own company.
I thought that part of my job was to make sure that never happened to me, not realizing that it didn't matter how much experience you had. There was no way to accurately call the future marketplace. There was no way to accurately predict whether you had built enough of a buffer around yourself. Enough of a bumper around yourself so you wouldn't get pulled down in the downdraft as well. It has been a terrible time and a wonderful time because all kinds of fascinating new product has been invented. New ways to get your news, new things to think about.
Journalism that penetrates the most inaccessible parts of our common life and other parts of the world. On one level, it is a golden age because more people are doing more phenomenal work in more unexpected ways than ever before because of the technological revolution in the business and at the same time it is an ongoing crisis. It's hard to fully communicate that to an audience I think.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One last question for you. Obviously, the nation's lawmakers are currently engaged in a lengthy debate over spending around the social safety net. What holes are going to be left? Where is that net going to be shored up? In your reporting for this series, how have you been thinking about this aspect of addressing it? Your point about the machine, the processes, the policies, what stands out to you?
Ray Suarez: There's exhortation about the promise of the gig economy. I read a lot of business journalism that talks about how it makes things better for employers and makes things better for employees. When we're in the midst of such an enormous shift in the way people make their living, we have to build up a whole new structure around work.
As I found in my years of unemployment or semi-employment, a lot of the things that people take for granted especially later in their work-life or are asked to rely on later in their work-life, it's not that they're inaccessible if you're self-employed, it's just all harder. Yes, the Affordable Care Act makes it possible and plausible, finally, for people who are self-employed to have affordable, reliable health insurance, but if you're earning an income that qualifies you for a subsidy and you're self-employed, the operability of that new system is not everything it should be.
I sat with a caseworker on the phone and they said, "Well, I think you'll qualify for a subsidy under the Affordable Care Act for the coming year. How much money are you going to make in the coming year?" I said, "Really because of the kind of work I do it's impossible for me to know how much money I'm going to make in the coming year. I assume this coming year is going to be much like last year, so why don't you use my tax return from last year as your template?" "No, I'm sorry, we can't do that. Do you have any contracts? Do you have any letters from potential employers? Do you have anything that quantifies an amount of money that you're going to get paid in the coming year?"
I said, "That's not the way what I do works. It's April, I'll find out in May that I have something for the first two weeks in June." They said, "Oh, I'm sorry. We can't work with that." That's a system problem, if you can't take advantage of some major advance in how people buy health care because of the way you work, then it's not really working for you. Is it?
If we say that we've done our job by getting an unhoused person a roof over their head for the night, have we really if the conditions once inside that shelter, once inside that community center, once inside that armory, once inside that auditorium or gym, have we really done our work if those places are chaotic, loud, dangerous and people can't sleep in them because before too long, if you haven't been sleeping, one of the first things you'll figure out is it gets harder and harder to help yourself and stand back up and get your life back in some order.
If you're unraveling because you haven't had a good night's sleep in two weeks, there are all these systems scattered around our feet and we say, "Oh, we're good. If I ever need them, they're there," but then when you do need them, when your father, who you have seen very little of through much of your growing up in your adult life, now is at your doorstep saying he needs help because he simply does not understand the language of the emergency unemployment benefits being offered during the pandemic, do you swallow hard and sit down with all the history that you have with this man and help him fill out his unemployment paperwork?
Yes, eventually you do but there should be some sort of answer for a person in that predicament. One thing that the series Going for Broke illustrates is how we trust in the existence of these systems. We say, "Well, thank God I don't need it but if I do it's there." Then when you do need it, you find out how insufficient to the task it's sometimes can be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ray Suarez is host of the limited series podcast, Going for Broke, a project of the Nation and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. He's also an author and journalist of many decades. Ray, thank you so much for joining us.
Ray Suarez: A pleasure to talk to you, Melissa. Thanks.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.