Funders Get Behind Effort to Report on Economic Hardship

Best-selling investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) is spearheading a major project aimed at forcing the issues of poverty and economic insecurity to the forefront of our country's national conversation. It's called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and while this effort started a few years ago, it's now ramping up with support from both foundations and individual donors. It's been incubated through the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC.

Ehrenreich has famously explored the economic challenges facing Americans over the course of her career, from the misery of the working poor to the insecurities of a fragile middle class. Now, with help from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, and "several generous individuals," she's throwing even more weight, and more journalistic firepower, behind her convictions. 

Very cool, especially since Ehrenreich, who is 72, could have retired long ago to Tuscany with earnings from Nickle and Dimed. Of course, this is part of a much bigger story of an exploding nonprofit news sector that we write about here all the time. While ProPublica led the way with a broad investigative agenda, we're now seeing more niche outfits popping up, whether it's regional players like InvestigateWest or issue-specific ventures like the Marshall Project, which will be a deep dig into criminal justice issues. Then there's Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media.

Apart from everything else, Enhrenreich's project is smart in that it combines two areas that are hot with funders right now: inequality and nonprofit journalism. That's always a good formula. 

The Economic Hardship Reporting Project was partially inspired by the Federal Writers Project, which was originally developed as a way of providing employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers during the Depression. They've taken this model and run with it and are now working with various underemployed journalists with strong backgrounds in covering economic issues who will produce original stories "in exchange for fair compensation which will be published in various outlets." These pieces will also be archived on the Economic Hardship Reporting Project website where anyone can access them.

So far, Ehrenreich's team includes co-editor Gary Rivlin, a former New York Times reporter whose last book, Broke USA, was a deeply disturbing look at usurious lending to the poor; author and Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor Alissa Quart (who's currently filling in for Rivlin as he finishes a new book); and Karen Dolan, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Ehrenreich has also assembled an advisory group of people who are deeply involved in poverty issues. 

To date, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project has developed a strong roster of working journalists who have produced stories for The AtlanticThe NationNew York Times, and others on wage issues, the cost of child care, the expense of poverty, and elder care, among other issues.

It's no surprise that both the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation have swung behind this effort (although PWF's support so far has been limited to seed funding.)

Casey has a long history of supporting work on the economically disadvantaged, particularly when it comes to children. Their primary mission is to "foster public policies, human-service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families," and their support of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is right in line with that mission. After all, if the problems that Casey cares about so much keep getting short shrift from the media, solving them will be that much harder. 

The same goes for the Public Welfare Foundation, which works to "advance fundamental rights and opportunities for people in need" and focuses their grant making where they believe it can "serve as a catalyst for reform." In their 65-year history, the Public Welfare Foundation has distributed over $530 million in grants to more than 4,700 organizations, of which the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is only one of the more recent.

Now all that's needed is for some other top funders who care about poverty to get on board. (We're talking to you Mott, Ford, Kellogg, and OSF. Don't nickle and dime Barbara Ehreneich when she comes knocking on your door.) As for those funders that already are backing nonprofit journalism, like Knight and McCormick, Ehrenreich's project seems like an obvious place to invest.