Ron Scherer is a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, where he has worked for 36 years. Previously, he worked for U.S. News & World Report and United Press International, and wrote for The Armored Sentinel at the U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, where he served during the Vietnam War.
Scherer spoke with OnPoverty about his favorite poverty-related stories, how the digital age has affected poverty coverage at the Monitor, and what he hopes the future holds for poverty coverage in the media.
What is your beat and how does poverty come into play?
The Christian Science Monitor has changed over the years. We used to be an actual newspaper instead of just a website. My beat at that point was sort of the general economy, maybe some business-type stories and things along that line. Now we’re online all the time, and we produce a weekly publication. For the most part, I’m writing for the daily website and [what I’m writing] really depends on what the news is. It’s very editor-driven. Editors sit there and look and say, “Oh, this is what we see that’s trending on Google. We need to get a story done on this.”
Sometimes I cover economic issues. So one of the stories you may have seen is called “Children of Poverty.” And that was the direct result of a news event that was taking place—the Census Bureau releasing data.
So anyway, it is a varied beat.
I’m really glad that you are doing this and that there is a thing such as OnPoverty.org simply because there is just not enough emphasis on the solutions to the issue [of poverty] and getting people aware that the issue exists.
Do you regularly check the information coming out of the Census Bureau, or are there other sources that you turn to regularly for story ideas?
One of my main sources along that line would be NELP—The National Employment Law Project. NELP advocates for people who are out of work and for the unemployed. They are out there with their megaphones, so to speak, saying, “Hey, we have to do something for these people.”
I use them as a source frequently because they are familiar with the legislative battles that are going on with Congress, as well as in the states. Also, they have affiliates all around the country, and they are able to get you in touch with people who are out of work. People who are out of work are not necessarily in poverty, but the odds are that they are.
The other place is the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, [another] Washington-based organization. They spend a lot of their time looking at the major issues that affect poor people, whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s SNAP, whether it’s TANF, whatever it might be they are looking at these issues frequently and issuing reports on them. And they’ve got experts that are really useful for our purposes.
The Census Bureau is useful as a resource because they have data like nobody else has, so they’re very good.
Those are the major ones that I can think of that I use.
How big of a priority is poverty coverage for the Christian Science Monitor? Did this change at all when the publication switched from print to web?
The issue is that we don’t have as many reporters on the staff as we used to. We’ve downsized considerably. One of my former colleagues on the staff used to write about social issues, especially poverty issues, from time to time. And we had other people as well.
[With] the type of newspaper that we purport to be, we feel like [we have] an opportunity to educate people by talking about this issue. We’re not The Wall Street Journal, where we’re writing for business. We like to think that we’re bringing a contribution to the world, and alerting people to poverty issues is part of that contribution.
I don’t feel as if the paper has intentionally said we’re not going to cover poverty issues. If we don’t cover enough, and I think you can argue that we don’t cover enough, it’s simply an issue of resources.
Is there a story you’ve written that sticks out in your mind as the best or most important story that deals with a poverty-related issue?
The “Children in Poverty” story I wrote is something that stands out in my memory. I’d seen a 60 Minutes piece on homeless children that was a really powerful piece. As part of that story on children in poverty, I decided to track down the FIT program in Seminole County, Fla., (which was mentioned in the 60 Minutes piece). And this was very useful because [the woman I talked to is] right out there on the leading edge of this—seeing all of the homeless children with their families. I just found that it was very rewarding to touch base, to find out what was happening and what they were doing.
A couple things that stood out: One was that they have something like 1,200 homeless children in Seminole County alone. And the only way they would help people, because they had some money, was if somebody was working, which is kind of mind-boggling to me. So unless one of the male or female heads of household is actually working, that child is going to remain homeless in Seminole County because they won’t help anybody unless they’ve got a job.
The other story that stands out is the declining standards of living story I did. I got in touch with a fair number of people who had lost their jobs. And boy, [when] you’re talking to them it’s really difficult to not say, “Let me write a check to you right now,” because you hear of the dire straits people are in.
I think that probably as a journalist, if you’re going to cover poverty like this it’s really difficult because you meet people who are in such dire straits. You want to be able to reach into your pocket and give them some money, but if you did that you’d never have anything left for yourself.
Do you have any advice for other reporters who are trying to cover poverty-related issues?
What’s difficult is the way that the media has changed. Editors are always trying to feed the beast. So there’s increasing pressure to write X number of stories per day, and it becomes more and more difficult to actually get out and meet people, and write about how they’re living.
I would encourage people to write about poverty because it’s an issue that we need to have more written about and it’s not a popular subject. It’s not like it’s one of Google’s trending topics all of the time, yet it’s something our society needs to be aware of. So I would say to reporters: Go for it. Write more stories about these things.
What do you think the biggest poverty-related issue is in the area that you cover?
Jobs. People with good jobs aren’t poor. So in my mind, that’s the biggest issue: How do we get more jobs for people? And then you get down to: How do we get people more interested in education because if you have a college degree—even in journalism—the unemployment rate is 4 percent. But if you have a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is considerably higher. If you dropped out of high school, then you’re lost, I mean, the whole system is stacked against you. Your odds of having a good job are really slim.
It seems like the coverage of unemployment rates, etc. has decreased recently.
Well, we have a presidential campaign that’s cranking up, so from a journalistic standpoint politics is beginning to become the issue. 2012: That’s what the editors will want to have out front.
And will poverty be a part of the 2012 election? You would like to think it would be. But I have a feeling it won’t be as in the forefront as you and I would like to see it.
You haven’t heard any of the candidates discuss poverty. Instead they’re discussing how they think that the tax rates shouldn’t be raised on high-income people [and] cutting the budget. They want to cut discretionary spending.
And the one thing that I will say is that I suspect the way we are going, unless the economy turns around considerably in the next year or two, poverty rates in America will be rising even more. And there will be less of a safety net.
I think that organizations like OnPoverty.org can help say OK, what are some of the solutions? How can we do things that are positive? Because if you just sit there and look at all of the budget cuts coming down the road and stuff like that, it’s not going to solve the issue.