The Other Side Of The Economic Divide

One dinner at a restaurant cost NPR reporter Pam Fessler about the same as what one of her interview subjects gets for two weeks on welfare. Fessler, who reports on poverty for NPR, reflects on how much divides her and the people she covers.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The government said this week that more than 46 million Americans, about one in seven, are poor. Correspondent Pam Fessler covers poverty for NPR. Recently, she's been reporting from New York and it was there that she discovered the gulf between herself and the people's whose stories she tells.

Here's her reporter's notebook.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, I was at a food pantry in the Bronx run by a group called Part of the Solution. People there were lined up for boxes of instant potatoes, pasta and canned food. They were only allowed so much.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You want another applesauce?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You'll have to put the apple back and one peach.

FESSLER: But they could get free toilet paper. Unwrapped, partially used rolls donated by New York City hotels. I watched as one elderly woman searched through a stack at the checkout counter, trying to find the biggest and least used rolls to take home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're welcome. Have a nice day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You, too.

FESSLER: I'd stayed at a hotel the week before, and wondered was one of these toilet paper rolls mine?

The next day, my husband and I found ourselves at a place called Eataly in Manhattan. It's an over-the-top emporium of Italian food; the kind of place where it's easy to drop 200 bucks on some pasta, oil, and cheese. The aisles there were crammed with people looking for specialty items: black pesto, white pesto, pesto with truffle sauce.

The economic divide is everywhere. But in New York City it's especially stark. We also ate out that night at a restaurant. When the bill came, it was uncomfortably close to the $130 one woman told me she gets every other week from welfare - for herself and her son.

As journalists, we try to get an accurate view of what's going on in the world; asking the right questions, listening to the answers. But let's be honest: Few of us are or have ever been poor. I've always prided myself on understanding the lives of others, of being able to bridge the gap. But the older I get, the more I wonder, what am I missing? Like when I was at that Bronx food pantry? I met a woman named Marion Matthew. She's a home health aide with six children. Five of them are now adults, in their 20's and 30's. In the course of talking with me, she pointedly noted this.

MARION MATTHEW: I don't have no grandkids neither.

FESSLER: Aha, I thought. Something we have in common - no grandchildren. I was about to commiserate when, of course, it hit me. She wasn't bemoaning the fact that she has no grandkids. She was bragging about it. Her children hadn't fallen into the trap that she and many low-income women fall into - Having kids too young and too poor.

MATTHEW: How I moved out of my parent's house is I got married and I had children.

FESSLER: She told her kids they could take a different path.

MATTHEW: You can do anything you want to do. You do not have to have a baby. Sex is a beautiful thing. A baby is a lifetime worth of aggravation.

FESSLER: I was with her on that first part about doing anything you want to do. But that last part about a baby being a lifetime of aggravation? I'd never, ever tell that to my middle-class sons. I was reminded again that I, like probably most of you listening, live in one world. Marion lives another.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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