Film Documents Families In Poverty Across U.S.
December 6, 2012 4:45 p.m.
Jennifer Tracy, Executive Director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition
Hannah Gravette, Lead organizer, The San Diego Organizing Project
Related Story: 'The Line' Documentary Shows Families In Poverty Across U.S.
CAVANAUGH: This is the time of year when we are all asked to think of those less fortunate, from Salvation Army red kettles to holiday toy drives. We're asked to spread our good fortune to others. Now policy makers in Washington are being asked to do their part. San Diego groups are sponsoring the screening of a documentary which pushes for more federal help for the poor, and the passage of a crucial farm bill before the end of the year. My guests, Jennifer Tracy is executive director of the San Diego hunger coalition. Welcome back to the show.
TRACY: Thanks, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Hannah Gravette is a community organizer at the San Diego organizing project. Welcome to the show.
GRAVETTE: Great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Timothy King is on the line with us. Executive producer of the documentary I was talking about, it's called The Line.
KING: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Here's a man explaining what The Line means in a clip from your documentary.
NEW SPEAKER: The Line is the firing line at which people face survival or death. And sometimes the person holding the gun is their neighbor, and sometimes it's their Congressman or their alderman who's not doing enough to help them.
CAVANAUGH: Another woman talks about The Line as the one poor people want to rise up to and middle class people don't want to fall below. Can you talk more about this idea of The Line and why it's so significant in American society?
KING: Yeah, one thing that we realized when we first started thinking about creating this film is that people so often don't understand what poverty in America looks like today, especially since the recession started. The face of poverty in America hasn't come out for a lot of people. There's a lot of stereotypes or old stories or kind of ways of thinking about poverty that people have. And our hope with this film was to bring out the real faces, the real voices, and the real stories of people who are struggling to get by. When it comes to poverty in America, one of the things that we see is it's a lack of opportunity and a lack of freedom for people to live as they want. And we wanted to make sure that there was a way that people could engage with the stories of folks, some people who look like them, who might not look like them or have the same background, but that they could see the different ways that Americans are struggling every day to stay up and above and beyond that line, and oftentimes continuing to fall beneath it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you focus in The Line, the documentary, on four people living in poverty. Tell me in what ways their stories challenge assumptions about poor people.
KING: So often you hear people who think that those who are living in poverty almost want to live in poverty or that the only reason why someone is poor in America is because they aren't working hard enough or they aren't trying hard enough or it's their own fault through bad choices. But you know what? In life all of us make mistakes and bad choices, but often what we see with folks living in poverty today are those who have been hit by some circumstances often beyond their control. Sometimes 1 story was a woman who had worked herself out of poverty but then tripped and fell down the stairs at a train platform and became disabled. Another man who had gone to a great school, had done well on his SATs, making six figures a year, and suddenly found himself a victim of the recession. Other folks, and I think one being a lot of people relate to, is that the economy changes. And the livelihood you used to have, what you trained for, what you were best at no longer exists. And so one of the things that we really wanted to show is that you know what? It's a tough thing, but poverty can happen to anyone in America. And that's why we need to be good neighbors to one another and we need to make sure that we support the charities and organizations that help folk when is they're down on their luck but also make sure that we support the government programs that give people that safety net and that bounceback that they need.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you have actually sent copies of The Line documentary to every member of Congress. What is the message that you want congressmen and senators to understand from this film and what would you like them to do about it?
GRAVETTE: Right now in DC, there's a big partisan showdown around the budget. And one of the things that we're worried about is that we know that business people, they're got their lobbyists on the hill who are making sure that their interests are taken care of when we look at our budget and when we talk about how to reduce our deficits. We know that wealthy people are making their donations and that people are looking out for their interests. And what we're worried about is that when all of these other interests kind of stake their claim and are fighting for their piece of the pie that what ends up happening is when Congress tries to reduce our deficit, which is an important thing to try to do that over the long run, the people who end up paying the price are those who can least afford T. It's the poor, the vulnerable, hardworking but struggling families who don't have a voice right now in DC. And because they don't want have a voice, they're the ones who could end up bearing the burden of deficit reduction. So one of the things that we've asked is before any member of Congress goes and votes on any deal around this fiscal cliff, before they look at any deal for deficit reduction that they watch this film and they hear the stories and they know that these are real people, real lives, real struggles. And that they need to remember those faces, those names, and those stories before they vote on anything. So we've made it available to every member of Congress, and it's up on the movies website, thelinemovie.com.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks for joining us,
KING: Thanks so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, the stories told in The Line are about people in Illinois, they're in North Carolina, they're in Louisiana. Why did you want to bring this film to San Diego?
TRACY: We have about half a million people in San Diego County who struggle to get enough food to eat each year. We have a poverty rate of about 14%, and our child poverty rate is about 19.5%. So about 1-5 children in San Diego live in poverty. And we wanted to make sure that we could have a way to move forward the conversation about poverty. It's one of the main factors that affects hunger.
CAVANAUGH: So you've given us numbers, and I'm glad that you did. Those numbers are very important. But is it that a movie like this puts a face on those numbers?
TRACY: Exactly. For people who've never experienced poverty or hunger or never had to ask for help, it's a better opportunity to better understand the issue. And the hope is that the increased understanding will improve the public dialogue about poverty and help us find better solutions to address the problem.
CAVANAUGH: These stories are all very compelling. Was there 1 story in the four people profiled in The Line that really resonated with you?
TRACY: Yeah, the man who was a single father who had lost his job working at a bank resonated with me a lot. When I was younger, my dad would lose his job seasonally with the work that he was in. So we relied on programs like these to help make sure we had enough to eat. So knowing that that can happen to anyone and that people work really, really hard and still fall on hard times, that story in particular I could see how that made sense.
CAVANAUGH: And that man talks about his falling from grace, so to speak, having this huge income, and then going have to go and get food for his family, the kids don't understand that -- they're not getting it. Did you get it when you were younger and your dad had to go through that?
TRACY: I knew that we were low income, and I knew that we couldn't afford a lot of things. But luckily I never went hungry because we had access to the food stamp program, we received reduced price meals at school, and we also received help frommure on church. So it made a big difference for us.
CAVANAUGH: Hannah, what story in the film represents a personal history that you know about here in San Diego?
GRAVETTE: I think for me it was -- the woman who had worked her way out of poverty and then fell downthe steps and was struggling again to find and keep work. And it makes me think about a woman that I know here in San Diego, a very similar story. She grew up in poverty. She grew up in a family where both her parents were working very hard to make ends meet, and they just weren't able to provide the same level that other families in San Diego are able to provide for their children. But she did manage through some government grants and other types of support to go to college and get a good job. And she also came down with a health problem, and because of her condition wasn't able to work and keep that job, and now has $16,000 worth of medical bills that she's really struggling under. She'll probably never be able to crawl back out of that hole without some kind of help.
CAVANAUGH: And again, somebody who was in a situation where they were making progress in their lives, doing great, just one fall, just one accident, just one bad move, and they find themselves in a situation where they are now one of the statistics that you were talking about. I'm wondering, Jennifer, I know that the San Diego hunger coalition has been working with San Diego County to improve the food stamp process here in San Diego. How has that been going?
TRACY: Well, we had to start from a low level. So we've been working our way up to improve access. So we have increased participation in other program, there's more people enrolled who are eligible. And I know the county of San Diego is working really, really hard to improve efficiency and the effectiveness of their eligibility system. But there's still work to do. There's still things that are systemically happening that are barriers for people. And we'd still like to see some of the stigmas addressed within the system as well that are related to low-income people.
CAVANAUGH: In your working the idea of improving the amount of participation in food stamps is seen as a victory. But I remember back during the campaign, are the fact that the food stamp assistance had gone up under President Obama was used as an issue against him. I'd like you both to address this. Is that part of a particular attitude interest poverty do you think?
TRACY: I think it's a stigma that people have alternatives. It's the assumption that low-people choose to be poor, or if they just got a job, they'd being okay. But the reality is we had a significant recession. The program is counter cyclical. So it's going to automatically expand as people need help, and it will automatically contract as the economy improves. The most common reason people leave the program is because they find work. So a lot of the things that were said in the campaigns were really based on stigmas and stereotypes that simply aren't true.
CAVANAUGH: And Hannah, a lot of people believe the government cannot afford to help people who need assistance like this: At least not all of them, and that people just have to pick themselves up and go to work and fend for themselves.
GRAVETTE: Well, and I think to that I would say that we also simply cannot afford to let people live in poverty because it's a symptom that will impact everybody. It impacts every level of our economy, every level of our society, of our social life. And I do think even our local county, they're dependent. They distribute resources that actually come from the federal government or from the state. And right now, and Mr. King talked about this a little bit when he was speaking, that even right now our federal government are debating whether or not we should solve our country's deficit simply by making cuts to programs that really impact these people we're talking about, people living in poverty. Our neighbors, our family members. And we need to make a decision. Our country needs to make a decision right now. Do we want to solve our nation's deficit only by asking all of these people to suffer more? Or do we want to ask everybody to contribute and pay their fair share to solve this problem?
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about, Hannah if you would, what would be the impact here in San Diego if indeed this budget is approved that solves the problem by cutting social programs or if the farm bill is not approved by Congress by the end of the year.
GRAVETTE: Well, so the house budget, there will still be more compromise, but the house budget that has been passed, they would like particularly with food stamps in the country they want to cut 8-10 million families from food stamps. I do have numbers here locally, in California for Medicaid or Medi-Cal, the healthcare program that many of these approximate families depend on, there would be 11.1 million people that would be cut from those programs. And when people don't have access to healthcare, it's something that all of us in the long run do actually end up having to pay for. So we can't afford to make these cuts. We simply can't.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, what are you hoping will be the result of this screening? Why is this coming to San Diego?
TRACY: I'd like them to start talking to the people they care about about these issues. And when they hear stereotypes, that they make an effort to better understand what the reality is. I think it's time we elevate the dialogue above stereotypes and start talking about real people and real solutions. When you have access to food, you're more likely to be stable enough, to go find work instead of waiting in a food line for three hours. Hunger costs us over $90 billion every year. So we'd like to have this be more of the public dialogue to find strong solutions.
CAVANAUGH: You want people to get involved with their member of Congress?
TRACY: Calling their congressional representative would be a really big step to, make sure they hear the voices of people. We know that Americans support making sure people have access to food. So we'd like to see those sentiments reflected in the actions of Congress.