It’s hard to avoid the occasional personal attack when you’re a journalist—especially when you write about an issue as fraught as poverty. And I’ve been called plenty of names before. But in the last week I’ve gained some new ones: “Elitist.” “Poverty pimp.” “Precious little snowflake.” Most of these came in the comments below three excerpts from my new book, The American Way of Eating, describing my experience going “undercover” to work in the kitchen at an Applebee’s, published here at Slate.
I understand the impulse; undercover projects carry with them a whiff of noblesse oblige and even “poverty porn”; avoiding those pitfalls is tricky business. And while it’s never fun to be criticized, behind these accusations lurk important questions: How much does a journalist’s own background matter when he or she is writing about poverty? Are certain kinds of reporting off-limits?
As a journalist, my immediate response is that these stories need to be told, and that as problematic as an undercover approach may be, it can offer insight—and garner attention—that otherwise might not exist. What’s more, the chance that a farm worker—or single mom on the night shift at Walmart, or single dad cooking at Applebee’s—will get their story published in a major outlet that informs national debate is slim. I don’t think this is fair, mind you. If an editor had to choose between a story from me on farm labor and one from a farm-worker-turned-journalist, by all means, it should be given to the farm worker. But the more common choice is between me—or someone like me—and nobody.
But what does “someone like me” mean, exactly? Because I am white and have a college degree, does that make me, by definition, an “elitist”? I would argue that the label reveals a fault line that often goes unmentioned in American discourse: the erroneous assumption that highly educated people—especially if they are white—cannot possibly be poor. The primary narrative of poverty in the U.S. has long had a black or brown face, while that of affluence has been a white one. Both stereotypes are inaccurate, and deprive us of an honest civic conversation about either poverty or race.
I’ve been told that nobody wants to hear that I made more working at Applebee’s than I do as a writer, that I will alienate people if I insist on making such a point. But it has been my own experiences with working poverty—including the stint during which I wrote the book—that have pushed me into writing about it. That personal experience informs my work, and has helped focus my attention on what, I think, is actually important: how many Americans don’t have the option of leaving poorly paid jobs after a two-month experiment.