Poverty in the Movies - So Not Changing the World

Sunday, November 22, 2009 | General | Margy's Blog & Updates | News


Precious, the movie, has been getting a lot of attention – and some of my friends recommend it highly. But, I’ve been resisting. A.O. Scott, in his commentary Two Movies, Two Routes From Poverty, confirms my inclination to avoid. I waited years to see Pursuit of Happyness for the same reason. That film made me cry, but it also made me mad. Scott points out the problem of movies about poverty: they usually focus (by necessity) on the story of the individual and thereby obscure the systemic issues. I just mostly get annoyed seeing movies that reinforce the problematic, widespread assumption that a little more charity and/or personal responsibility will solve the problem. Where do people get those ideas? From….uh, the movies!!

Raina Kelley, in an essay in Newsweek, took a more ambivalent, less incendiary view, noting that the movie’s intense focus on an individual’s terrible story blunted its potential to make a larger statement. “I wish I could agree with those who say ‘Precious’ is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims,” she wrote. “Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto.”

And this is a critique that might extend to “The Blind Side” as well. Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed. For all their differences, they ultimately occupy a common ground that is both optimistic and, at the same time, curiously defeatist. Both locate the problems facing their main characters in the failure of families — of mothers in particular — and find solutions in better families, substitute mothers (Ms. Rain and Leigh Anne), whose selflessness and loyalty exorcise the biological monsters who have been left behind. The fact that “The Blind Side” is based on a true story lends credibility to this sentimental idea.

Left or right, black or white, Americans love happy endings. Overcoming adversity is our national pastime, especially when it can also be a spectator sport. And we love stories of heroic educators, coaches and moms — Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver” — who change the lives of poor, marginalized children by teaching them hard work and self esteem. Let me be clear: I’m not disparaging either “Precious” or “The Blind Side,” even though I think “Precious” is a much better movie. They are both sincere and serious, and if they serendipitously share a premise, they also share a blind spot, which is hardly theirs alone.

At the end of “Precious” the heroine shoulders her burden and sets off to make her way in the world, a conclusion that may be objectively bleak — Precious is an H.I.V.-positive teenage mother who has only recently learned to read and write — but that fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption. We believe she will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.

Notes on Media Coverage of Poverty

Friday, October 31, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

At The Mobility Agenda, we track media coverage of poverty proposals. We thought you would be interested in these new links to articles representing a classic example of what happens when poverty is invoked to support policy proposals.

This Manhattan Institute article, Getting Poverty Wrong, and the media followup is a good reminder that we will not achieve the policy results we seek (note the list of Obama proposals attacked in the article) with a conversation that makes people think about poverty.

When we use this frame, we inevitably get a response from our opponents that goes straight to the place Bill Cunningham does in this interview: “…they’re poor because they lack values, morals, and ethics.” At another spot in the interview he argues that “…unlike many countries in the world, Steve, we have fat poor people. We don’t have skinny poor people. Ours are fat and flatulent.”


“CUNNINGHAM: Steve Malanga — the article is ”Obama’s counterproductive war on poverty.“ The war on poverty was declared in the 1960s. It was lost in the 1970s. The funding continued for poverty. You know, people are poor in America, Steve, not because they lack money; they’re poor because they lack values, morals, and ethics. And if government can’t teach and instill that, we’re wasting our time simply giving poor people money.”

For much more, including suggestions for alternative approaches  – check out our page on reframing poverty:


Click here for another interview online. In this one, Malanga implicity attacks attacks Community Action Agencies and other nonprofits, making an all too familiar “poverty pimps” argument.

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Responding to Paul Krugman and A New Lens for Policy

Monday, February 18, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Paul Krugman takes on poverty in his column. He’s highlighting new research about the impact of childhood poverty on “the American Dream”.

Unfortunately, while he had strong opinions about the impact of campaign promises on legislative debates over health care after the election, he doesn’t acknowledge what we know about public reaction to use of the language of poverty.

We’ve said it before:

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one that’s about our interdependence (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one that’s not (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?

We present these findings in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”. We use this powerpoint several times a month (at least) for talks around the country with all kinds of stakeholders – academics, advocates, policymakers, elected officials, students, media, organizers, service providers, etc.

I learn with the audience too. A few weeks ago, I met with a class of NYU law students and one of them suggested some changes in the visual presentation that I promptly adopted.

The week before that, I met with community leaders from across the state of North Carolina. They discussed better ways to present information to decision makers based on the research I’d presented. They decided to illustrate systemic solutions like universal access to health care, retirement options for those without adequate employer-based options, and guaranteed paid sick days. These are three of the ideas identified in our scan on better jobs.

It was thrilling to hear that local leaders believe the ideas from our research also provide the best economic narratives as alternatives to the traditional sympathy storyline.

View “A New Lens on Policy”.

Dear Paul Krugman

Thursday, February 14, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Paul Krugman idealizes the democratic process in Clinton, Obama, Insurance (Feb 4, 2008). If Congress adopted policy on merit alone, we would already have guaranteed, quality, affordable health care in this country. And gun control too.

There’s every reason to conclude that proposals sounding like they limit choice —by including something called a “mandate”, for example — will trigger public concerns about government interference and administrative competence. Indeed, even focusing on the “universal” aspect of health care proposals makes people who already have it think about what they would have to give up for others to get it.

We’ve recently had a brief debate about whether words matter in campaigns. Careful consideration about the public conversation that can create the space and public support for guaranteed health care in the future is exactly what’s called for now.