May 30th, 2008
02:09 PM ET

Poverty-A reporter's response

Watch the original report by CNN's Gary Tuchman
Watch the original report by CNN's Gary Tuchman

Gary Tuchman
360 Correspondent

Having this blog site opens up a lot of opportunities for those of us who work on Anderson Cooper 360. It gives us the space and the time needed to take you behind the scenes and show you what happens before, during, and after we work on a story. And now is a good time for me to do just that.

On the day before the Kentucky presidential primary, we decided to do a story on poverty and politics. In travels around the country I have done since the primary and caucus season began, I have talked with many poor Americans who in high proportions, feel Washington hasn’t a clue about what they are going through. While many Americans feel people in abject poverty should just “get a job,” many of the poor truly want honest steady work, but for a variety of reasons, can’t get it. And now with four dollar a gallon gas, driving to find a job (particularly in wide-open rural areas) is prohibitively expensive. So with all that in mind, we decided to do a story on poverty and politics. We reported the story in Manchester, Kentucky, which is the county seat of Clay County, on the day before that state’s primary.

A day after our story aired, I received a letter from a Kentucky state senator. It wasn’t the warmest note I’ve ever received.

Senator Robert Stivers, who represents a district in the eastern part of the state, accused me of looking down on rural America. He added that “it is very popular in your rarified circles” to do just that. He also declared I went out of my way “to videotape (my) stereotype of Manchester residents.” He went on to say “Manchester has many new buildings, including a new courthouse. Several new and exciting projects are taking place in Clay County.”

Now, let me initially tell you that I hear where Mr. Stivers is coming from. This part of Kentucky is his home. He is proud of his home, and would like the rest of the nation and the world to see positive things about where he is from. In addition to the new buildings, there are some charming restaurants, beautiful mountain scenery, nice homes, and notably, very kind people. I talked to Senator Stivers on the phone after I received his letter and he told me about federal monies that are being spent on some important projects in Clay County. They include a new facility for a branch of Eastern Kentucky University, a special intervention program for at-risk youth in schools, and an innovative anti-drug abuse program. He also told me there are extensive infrastructure modifications taking place.

But what I told Senator Stivers on the phone, and what I tell all of you now, is that we did not come to Clay County on this particular visit to do a story about the courthouse, the buildings, and these projects. That could indeed be an inspirational story for another time; but on this story, we needed to concentrate on people who are suffering with poverty and how they feel about presidential politics and the presidency in general.

We came to Clay County for a specific and objective reason. According to U.S. census data, it is the poorest county in Kentucky when it comes to per capita income which is $9,716 a year. It is the second poorest county east of the Mississippi river. (Jefferson County, Mississippi is $7 a year poorer.) Almost 40 percent of the people in Clay County live under the poverty level. In his letter to me, Senator Stivers wrote that while many of the residents in Clay County face poverty, they do it with hard work and dignity. He then said, “it is obviously too much to expect that CNN would have found a story in that.”

Well, my feeling is that is the story we did. I interviewed people who were for the most part scared to go on camera, but decided to speak to talk to me precisely because their dignity is so important to them. I don’t know all the things about their pasts that have led these people to be in their predicaments. But I do know when a middle aged woman at a lunch counter tells me “we’re below poverty honey. I don’t know how much lower we can go,” it’s something that demands reporting in 21st century America.

When a young man tells me the only way things will change is “if a poor man gets in as president, and that’s never going to happen,” that is a sentiment we need to capture. And then, when I ask the mayor of Manchester, Kentucky about response from national politicians, and she tells me “it’s like nobody cares,” I know we’re on to a sad but frank portrayal of America’s poor.

I was curious what that mayor, Carmen Lewis, thought about our story after it aired. She was also made aware of the letter that Senator Stivers wrote to me and I was curious if she shared his sentiments after seeing our finished report. Instead though, she said she believed it showed the truth, and that she hopes some good comes of it.

Certainly, when we do stories on poverty in places like New York City or Los Angeles, people know there are lots of other wonderful parts of those cities. Because Manchester, Kentucky gets on television so rarely, there is understandably more sensitivity. But I think almost all of our viewers get it. This is a snapshot of a national problem.

Senator Stivers says I am in “rarified circles.” That is the only criticism I don’t take in stride. I’ve spent weeks in tents in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve slept in cars and RV’s in the flooded streets of New Orleans after Katrina. I don’t consider myself or the colleagues I am friends with part of any “rarified circle.” But nevertheless, I respect Senator Stivers’ opinion. After all, he obviously takes pride in his home. So Washington; take note. When you have 40 percent of people living in poverty; at the very least, something is not right.

Filed under: Gary Tuchman
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Melissa

    @ Stacy what you're referring to is the fault of the insurance companies, drug companies and corporations who are choosing profit over humanity causing many people to lose their purchasing power. We did have medical setbacks, I almost lost my father at age 13 due to an illness. We had no insurance and slowly made payments to pay for his hospital stay and surgery. They saved so much of their money so we could get a leg up in life. There were no new clothes (I had exactly one weeks worth), no CD's, DVD's, prom, class ring, etc. as I grew up. I worked along side them with the goal to graduate college and become self sufficient. Unfortunately life does happen and I lost my brother and father within 2 years of each other. I paid for both funerals. My mother couldn't help me because she had to pay for the doctor bills for both my brother and father (again no health insurance). I could go on but the point is that our government doesn't need to create more financial help for its citizens, it needs to fix the health insurance issue along with getting out of Iraq. The rich won't stay rich forever at the rate we're going. They will become the new middle class if nothing is fixed.

    May 30, 2008 at 11:47 pm |
  2. Annie Kate


    Your report was a good solid report and portrayed what the majority of the people deal with on a daily basis in rural Appalachia. The Senator can gloss over it all he wants and I understand he wants his home to look good, but how do you justify the poverty of your constituents with a new courthouse? It doesn't alleviate their poverty, their hunger, or their hopelessness.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 30, 2008 at 10:13 pm |
  3. Dawn

    When Bush was first elected, I informed people, Americans were
    going to become poorer, and the rich will become richer. I also said ,
    "One of the biggest issues, about more Americans lacking health-care, would expand. Many people, didn't focus on the financial
    costs of this made-up war!!! People are ashamed, embarassed,as well as angry about their financial status. Yet they won't verbally
    confront the lunatic (Bush), who started this unnessary war. Instead of falling for a lie, Americans need to start using their commen sence,
    concerning any battles. As the record "War" indicated, "War, what is it good for ? Answer: Absolutely, Nothing!!!!

    May 30, 2008 at 9:40 pm |
  4. Victor in Saanich, B.C. Canada

    Gary, it is a sad truth that the poor, an ever increasing minority[??], is forgotten while our political leadership spends money on themselves and questionable projects. Here in Canada, we limp on towards the Olympics in 2010 and the 'money hole' continues to swallow cash that could be used for societal ills!! Our politicians and radio/ TV right wing mouthpieces quickly forget their most needy of constituents. At the least, in Canada we have a larger group of political parties and they at least raise an alarm – until they access power unfortunately. The USA with over 300 million citizens needs more political parties as the current two have little to separate their corporate backed platforms!! It is too late for this election, but the day after the citizens should rise up and retake power – First at the local council level, then the state, region and finally nationally. True change can only happen with a diiferent political agenda. To refer to oneself as an independent voter may make one feel superior but voting for the two current parties is an admittance of defeat!!

    May 30, 2008 at 9:30 pm |
  5. Laura

    Gary, thank you!

    As a resident of Appalachia, I am appalled that this so-called public service in Kentucky considers his poverty-stricken consituents "sterotyped" due to having trouble truying to find decent work. I am angered by the fact that he chose to react to your story, rather than ACT on it. There are so many things out there that can be done to help the poor in rural areas–and you hit the nail on the head when discussing the price of gas. In rural areas, public transportation is lacking, and it shocks me. I grew up on the East CCoast, where the buses ran nearly 24/7, only to come to Appalachia and discover that the working poor cannot get a bus after 6 pm, nor on Sundays, nor on holidays, even Martin Luther King's birthday. Yup–what better way for America to celebrate our heritage of suffering and overcoming odds than by making getting to work impossible for those some MLK fought so hard for, or by making them walk to work, sometimes for miles, in the middle of winter. Meanwhile those "public servants" who write these brilliant policies regarding public transportation have the sorts of well-paying jobs that preclude the need for them to ever use it. Ug. The poor aren't invisible, they're ignored, and it's high time some of these politicians came to their senses!!

    May 30, 2008 at 9:28 pm |
  6. Stacy

    @Melissa–I applaud your parents, but unfortunately sometimes hard work and determination isn't enough, especially in recent years. The fact of the matter is that these days even many people in the middle class are just hanging on and are only one accident or illness away from being plunged into poverty. The number one reason for declaring bankruptcy is medical bills and most of those people actually have insurance. The gap between the rich and the poor grows every year and some people have fallen so far down the cracks that no amount of pluck and elbow grease will make up for it.

    I'm tired of the blame the victim mentality. Sure, there are always people who will exploit the system and expect handouts, but they're a minority. I don't know every poor person's back story, though I can tell you this: in life sometimes bad things happen, people get knocked down, and the lucky ones have someone to help pull them back up. I'm sure your parents had setbacks like the rest of us, but what if God forbid something horrible happened? What if the Cafe was somehow damaged or destroyed and then shortly thereafter one of your parents became very sick, requiring constant care? Would things have turned out differently? Similar scenarios happen everyday all over this country. Even to people who are educated. Even to people who work hard and never expected to need help.

    May 30, 2008 at 9:22 pm |
  7. Joyce

    The sight of the poorest of their constituents having their say on TV seems to upset some government officials to no end. I think Kentucky would be better off if our senators would stop being so defensive about appearances and stick to their work of improving the lives of residents. Maybe Senator Stivers doesn't like your story because it reminds him that there's still a lot of work to do. Lisa is right: Visit Manchester yearly, and show us how what happens as time goes by.

    May 30, 2008 at 8:11 pm |
  8. rocky co

    No one cars about the absolute terrible condition of the poor. the poor are not consumers, voters or financial contributors.
    Heres the thing, by all economic indicator about 12 to 15 percent of our middle-class will join the below poverty level working class in the next year because of the rampant inflation. THE GOVT WANTS YOU to think poverty level for a family of four is 22,ooo dollars, but a more realist number base standard economic indicators is about 45,ooo a year.
    my generation is the first generation of american how could not afford to by a house out of high school. My childrens generation is the first that will nt be able to afford a home out fo college. this due largely to the enormouse increase in home prices which i guess is never add to
    the yearly numbers reflecting inflation as a whole.
    gas prices are just a sympthom of a greater problem of business shipping jods over seas deminshing the ability of middle class people finding above minimum wage job which supports economic growth.second, the pressure of business to earn greater and greater profits every year demand steady increase of prices.
    republican policy is largely to blame for these increases.

    May 30, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  9. EJ (USA)

    Lisa – very passionate & truthful message.

    May 30, 2008 at 4:55 pm |
  10. Lilibeth

    Poverty in America is one of the most overlooked and underreported subjects and I'm glad you continue to shed light on it. Everbody in the country, Republican, Democrat or whatever political affiliation, should take part in helping to eradicate this problem in our country which is supposed to be the richest and most powerful in the world.

    Edmonds, Washington

    May 30, 2008 at 3:47 pm |
  11. Stacy

    Excellent blog post Gary and excellent report. I wasn't able to see it when it aired. I can understand where Senator Stivers is coming from, but I don't agree with him. I see no evidence that you played into stereotypes. What I did see is a national shame. For the richest country in the world to have people living in such abject poverty is beyond immoral. And to have this poverty rarely if ever reported on is beyond unethical. I think the "Sex and the City" Premiere got more press than the poor people of Kentucky. So thank you for shining a light on a very important subject. I can only hope that 360 will continue to do these kind of reports on a regular basis and cut back on all the irrelevant political bickering. Let's focus on the issues That's what it's all supposed to be about, right?

    As for the "rarified circles," I wouldn't take it personally. The senator has most likely mistakenly lumped you in with the beltway punditry, who do occasionally have a habit of looking down on, well, everyone.

    May 30, 2008 at 3:05 pm |
  12. Lisa

    The senator is correct - you are in a "rarified circle". You only go to these places because of a story. If Katrina hadn't happened, would you have been in some of those New Orleans neighborhoods? Did you go there before Katrina? If it weren't for the primary, would you ever have visited Manchester, KY?

    You come in, you shed light on the problem for a few minutes, then you leave. And Manchester is once again forgotten about. We spend millions of dollars a day for a war without end in Iraq. Some of that money is used to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and soccer fields for Iraqi kids (or at least that is what Bush indicated that 2 soldiers who died in Iraq had done there). Think about how that money would help Manchester; the infrastructure here in the US that needs rebuilding, play grounds and athletic fields for kids.

    We live in a time that it is difficult for many people to save - they are lucky to make enough for food and shelter, where a good majority of us live paycheck to paycheck. We don't have lifetime medical and pension (as say, the Senator does) or hefty paychecks for reporting the news.

    We'll spend days on McClellan's tell-all book or the Revs. Wright, Hagee, et al. or did Hillary really get shot at in Boznia. We're spending days on how the Dem nominee is going to shake out. But we didn't spend days on the issues in Manchester. We went on to the next primary stop. We aren't regularly talking about the decaying infrastructure here in the US. We aren't talking about the exorbitant compensation packages to executives who are sending jobs overseas resulting in more people being out of work here in the US. We aren't talking about greed in America and how much is enough (or the fact that CEOs are making what, 10 times what the average employee makes). We aren't talking about the economic packages that will keep jobs in the US and open up opportunities for Manchester, KY and other cities and towns just like them across the US. Rather, we focus on tabloid news.

    Maybe CNN should take the lead and consider doing a "spotlight" on various towns like Manchester. It is easy for us to close our eyes and say these issues don't exist – out of sight, out of mind. Anderson Cooper doesn't want us to forget about New Orleans and Katrina; we shouldn't forget about Manchester, either.

    May 30, 2008 at 2:51 pm |
  13. Melissa

    I grew up poor with immigrant parents who did not speak English. With hard work and determination, they were able to start a small cafe that ran for almost 20 years giving me and my brother an opportunity to go to college. He graduated with an MBA and I graduated with a B.S. in Business. The problem with this country is this oh woe is me attitude and the expectation of handouts. The opportunities are here but many of us choose not to take them. You look at any city and notice that the poor neighborhoods have unkept houses/yards with grafitti and shootings. The people who live in that neighborhood create that – no one else. Have pride in yourself and your neighborhood and change it for the better or work towards getting out of it. I grew up in government housing and dealt with the negativity many poor neighborhoods deal with. My parents made it a point to move out and they did – they eventually bought and paid off their house. Quit looking for the government to change your life for you.

    May 30, 2008 at 2:45 pm |
  14. Cindy

    I think that the whole nation in general feels that congress or the president has no idea what so ever how we live day to day and has no interest in truly finding out. That they are all just in it to get what they can for themselves.

    Saying that I can see how someone who is below the poverty line and barely making it can feel that no one else really cares or can relate to them unless they have been there themselves. It has to be hard getting up day to day feeling that no matter what you do nothing will ever change. And really they do have a right to think and say what they did in your report. Because no one does seem to be helping them. They give money here and there but only to put a band-aid on the sore but don't try to fix the real problem. They just go on ignoring it. It is about time that they all stop doing that and get to the root of the problem and try to come up with a solution to fix it.

    And I know that out of all of the reporters out there that you are the one that would never go into a story to hurt or down anyone. So although I respect Senator Stivers right to say what he did I do very much disagree with him. He should be thankful that your story is drawing attention to his state and may get them way more help.


    May 30, 2008 at 2:29 pm |