Kavitha Cardoza on Poverty Reporting and “Getting to the Why”

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The organization TalkPoverty is committed to lifting up good poverty journalism. One person whose work they appreciate is education reporter Kavitha Cardoza of public radio station WAMU in Washington, DC. Kavitha ensures that her audience hears directly from people living in poverty, something we think is far too rare in the media. She does this not only in her weekly segments, but through a long-form documentary series, Breaking Ground. She is also the reporter behind the popular annual series Beating the Odds, which highlights students who have overcome tremendous obstacles. At a time when reporters generally aren’t given much time and space to really dig deep on a beat — and certainly not a poverty beat — WAMU also deserves credit for investing in Kavitha and quality poverty journalism.

Recently, Talk Poverty’s Greg Kaufmann had the opportunity to speak with Kavitha about her work. This interview was crossposted at TalkPoverty.org.


(Photo: Sodexo USA/flickr CC 2.0/edited from original)

Greg Kaufmann: Do you consider yourself solely an education reporter, or a poverty reporter as well?

Kavitha Cardoza
Education Reporter, WAMU
Kavitha Cardoza: I think you can’t separate the two. When I first started it was strictly education and it was like test scores, test scores, test scores — and then the more I spoke to people who were actually in the classroom doing the work, it was clear these kids have a lot of challenges that are coming from their outside lives. And then I realized a lot of it was related to poverty. So I asked my news director to broaden the beat to education and poverty because you can’t separate the one from the other.

Greg: So was this a realization you made here in DC, or in a previous gig?

Kavitha: Here. But having said that I was very familiar with poverty because I grew up in India and knew a ton of people who were poor. And the one thing I noticed was how easy it was to be separate in the US. In India, you would hear these stories all the time: “My husband doesn’t pay for the children. I can’t pay for my kid’s school fees. I don’t have a car and the bus didn’t come.” I hear these stories here, too, but the difference is that here it’s really hidden. If you live in a nice neighborhood you are not likely to see poverty. Office cleaners come overnight. When you go to a McDonald’s or any place paying a minimum wage, people are wearing uniforms. We’ve sanitized poverty. And so when I report, I overwhelmingly get listeners who say, “Oh my god, I never knew that was happening.”

Greg: You have been on the beat for four years now. Is it striking to you that people continue to react to your work in this way — like, “God, I never knew?”

Kavitha: I don’t blame listeners, or viewers, for being surprised. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job as journalists. We are very reactive over here. We cover Katrina, and then how many stories do you find about New Orleans and poverty after that? I heard former Washington Post reporter Katherine Boo talking once — she said we have a tendency to tie everything up with a little bow at the end of a poverty story, and she said poverty reporters do a disservice to readers by doing that. And I think she’s right — because life isn’t like that.

Greg: So how do you avoid that trap?

Kavitha: I have really good relationships with a lot of schools, and principals, and guidance counselors, social workers, teachers, nonprofits… So when I first started they would say, “Oh, the media twists things.” And I would say, “Look at my body of work.” And I would send them examples of my work or ask them to sit in on interviews — I have nothing to hide. So now it’s easier because I’ve built up some trust that my story is not going to be, “Oh, how pathetic these kids’ lives are,” and it’s not going to be, “They are all angels.” No, there is a range of people within this beat just like any other. You have to show that range. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem real, and it’s not real. I think what I try to do is get to the why.

Greg: Tell me more about that.

Kavitha: For example, I saw a line in the newspaper once, it said about a third of crime committed on the Metro [DC’s subway system] is done by teenagers. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I should interview some kids to see what’s going on behind the statistics.” I interviewed this 11-year-old boy. And he talked to me about how he robbed someone’s wallet. As we continued chatting he told me he was wearing his school uniform and did it right outside of his school. And he looks like a little baby at 11 — he was like a small, little boy. And not bragging or anything, very innocently telling me about it. And so I started asking questions — what was going on? And he said, “It was getting dark and I didn’t have a way to go home. So I saw this person, and I thought, he can afford like 100,000 bus passes. And so my friend said just go and take his.” And the guy identified the boy the next day in school. So I said, “What did your mother say?” And he said, “She was very upset. She said why didn’t you call me? And I said, with what phone and what money?” And he said she never spoke about it again. So it’s never simple. There’s so much going on, and I think just getting to the why is the best I can do.

Greg: And what are some other powerful moments that really stand out for you and say a lot about your beat?

Kavitha: The more time I’ve spent in schools, the more I see what kids deal with — just a lot of issues: scared to come to school because of gangs, or feeling that they don’t have the right clothes to wear. Like one of the kids told me his mom used to shop for him at Payless and Wal-Mart, and those were not the cool clothes, and so he was always teased… So when people say, for example, “Poor people — how come they have nice clothes?” — it’s because they don’t want to show that they’re poor. Because the stigma is so great here. It’s such an American story, right? You can make it happen, you can do anything if you believe, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And so if you’re poor, it means you haven’t tried hard enough. That’s the underlying narrative that people know and [so] they want to hide.

Or, one of the kids in [my] Beating the Odds series — her parents were immigrants, and she was living a very comfortable lifestyle. Her dad was a lawyer and then he was caught for fraud and deported. They spent all of their money on his trial. Overnight, she had nothing. She said they had to decide whether to have food, or electricity and water. They chose food. So they had to go to the Chik-fil-A nearby to wash up and brush their teeth and use the bathroom. The mother and the three kids slept in the basement on one bed because it was the coolest place in the house. And I think that’s another thing we don’t think about enough, how fluid poverty can be — people are middle class, and then low-income. It’s not like these rigid structures that people often think it is.

Greg: Do you often find when you go after a story about poverty, you end up getting something completely different than what you expected?

Kavitha: Always. There is so much going on inside of people and their backstories. I remember interviewing an elderly lady when the DC plastic bag tax took effect and she didn’t like it. And I said, “But it’s only 5 cents.” And she said, “If I save up some of those 5 cents I can buy an egg.” And I remember just stopping and thinking, “Oh my lord, this is just a whole different scale we’re talking about here.”

Greg: In addition to “getting to the why,” are there other fundamentals to good poverty reporting that you think about?

Kavitha: I’m always interested in how poverty plays out in very specific, day-to-day ways. You want those specific details where you are like, “Oh, I had no idea” — both for you, and your audience. Like when I did my Yesterday’s Dropouts documentary series [for Breaking Ground], literally every person I interviewed was telling me “I forgot my glasses.” And suddenly I was like, “Wait a sec, what’s the glasses deal?” And so I asked this woman, “It’s not your glasses, right? You can’t read?” And she said, “No, I can’t.” And so once I realized people are hiding it I started asking, “What are the different ways in which you hide it?” Looking at colors on medicine bottles; or colors on skim and whole milk. I remember one guy telling me he was sent to buy grits, but that the picture on Quaker Oats and Grits is the same, and so he brought home the wrong thing, and that’s when his wife realized he can’t read. Lots of people keep it from their spouse. And I thought, “God, how alone must you feel, right? How invisible and full of shame and sadness.”

And with children I think it’s even harder because they are so small. So when they talk about violence, or things that even adults would have a hard time comprehending, you have to really develop a level of trust… Like one boy who hadn’t graduated and he was talking about running with street gangs, and he totally accepted that he was making poor choices. But at the same time he was very proud — in middle school he used to make honor roll, his teachers loved him… And so we got to talking further and I asked, “So what happened?” His twin brother was shot in front of him. And then it’s like of course he didn’t stick around in high school. What would I do? Or thinking about that kid who [stole] the bus pass — I remember leaving that interview and thinking, “What would I have done if I was 11 years old and it was getting dark and I didn’t have a way to go home?”

Greg: As you have put together this body of work, and have gotten to know so many children and families living in poverty — are there things that you feel like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe as a country we are doing A or B, or failing to do C?”

Kavitha: As a reporter I really believe it’s up to the community to decide what kind of community they want, and what kind of world they want to live in. Personally, yes, to see the amount of poverty, especially in DC, and to see what these children have to deal with — and yet we say, “Oh, why don’t they succeed?” When I hear that I just feel [like] people are operating without all the facts. And so that’s where I think my role comes in — I will show you a different side that you are not seeing. I will present people and voices. Any time you say, “People are lazy,” I’ll show you someone who’s working really, really hard, and it’s just — incredibly hard. And listen to those stories too. So in the mix of all of the stories you hear about all of these different viewpoints and policy debates, I want you to think of a person — a mother, a child, a parent who doesn’t have the skills or the training, or is paid low wages…

Greg: When it comes to the intersection of poverty and education, are there things that you think are missing from the current debate about education reform?

Kavitha: We should have implemented reforms a long time ago. Because it’s clear our kids are not learning. But the reality is that poverty does affect these kids. And I remember someone said to me many years ago, “Well, in DC, we have a social worker and we have a guidance counselor and serve breakfast in school.” Yes, except you’ve got one social worker for 200 children. There are a lot of poverty issues that spill into the schools — whether it’s violence, teen pregnancy, hunger, the stress of things they see at home, substance abuse, homelessness, obesity. I did a series on obesity, and teachers were talking about how it’s hard to schedule classes. If a class is on the third floor, some kids can’t walk up to the third floor. Suddenly, they have to rearrange classes. Or, I remember this little child saying, “I need to go to the bathroom often.” Because his belly is so big, it pushes down on his bladder. And the teacher is like, “No, you can’t go. What is this? You keep going to the bathroom.” And so there are these kinds of misunderstandings. That’s the challenge of poverty reporting — there is no simple A to B to C line.

Greg: As a DC resident and as a reporter, what’s most stunning to you about the economic divide and the lack of awareness about what people are experiencing?

Kavitha: I think that the lack of awareness goes both ways. A lot of the kids I speak to have no idea that people care west of the [Anacostia] River, or want them to do well in school. I remember once, Beating the Odds listeners had called and offered money to help a student. And when I told the student she said, “Why would a white person care about me?” I remember another white lady called me and she said, “You know, this story really touched me because I went to Georgetown University, and I met my husband there, and he was living in his car.” And when I told that to a student I was interviewing, she said, “That can’t be possible. White people don’t live in cars.” So there are all these kinds of misconceptions.

But telling these stories through children [results in] tons of listeners calling up and saying, “We want to help.” They want to donate money, time, or volunteer. After that kid who robbed the wallet for a bus pass, several people called up and said, “We want to donate bus passes to him so he can get home.”  Homeless college kids — people are like, “We want to invite them for Thanksgiving so they have a place to stay” or “For summer, I want them to have my basement apartment.”

The divide comes when people ascribe fault. I remember doing a story on two kids — one was homeless, lived in a shelter and was doing really well, and talked about how he had to pack up all the time and it was so hard. A ton of people reached out to help, to give him money for school. But then the other boy talked about how [in the past] he had assaulted someone, did drugs, went to jail. He was like 19 or 20 now and had really turned his life around and was mentoring other kids. No one called about him.

Greg: As we enter 2016, potential presidential candidates are already talking about poverty and it looks like it will be a campaign issue. What are your hopes and fears for how the media might cover it?

Kavitha: I hope that poverty is covered in terms of real people, not just in a theoretical way in terms of policies. I hope people who have solutions and programs that work are highlighted, so people don’t think this is an issue that cannot be tackled. I hope the diversity of poverty is covered, and I don’t mean that it affects all races. But how does poverty play out differently in the suburbs? What is it like for the newly poor versus the generationally poor? The elderly versus children? The working poor? There are just so many aspects.

Greg: Thanks for all of your great work and for talking to us.

Greg Kaufmann is a frequent contributor to BillMoyers.com. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, editor of TalkPoverty.org, and producer of TalkPoverty Radio on SiriusXM Insight. Follow him on Twitter: @GregKaufmann.
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