The pandemic destroyed millions of jobs and disproportionately imposed economic hardships on low-income and minority households. It also led to the largest expansion of safety net programs in at least two generations — hundreds of billions of dollars in cash aid, unemployment insurance, nutritional assistance and other forms of help.
To explore how the most vulnerable Americans were getting by, and whether the expanded safety net was meeting their needs, we adopted a human-centered approach to our poverty reporting.
We wanted to take our readers beyond the statistics into people’s lives, to understand what that degree of upheaval meant.
Finding families willing to share their stories posed a reportorial challenge. Reporters often rely on intermediaries — social service and advocacy groups — to locate people to interview, but that risks a kind of selection bias creeping into stories. The Times publishes dozens of callouts each month, to engage directly with its audience of readers. But most of the poor Americans who were the focus of our safety net coverage aren’t part of readership, making direct outreach more difficult.
We hit upon an innovative solution through an unusual partnership. Propel, a software company that serves low-income households, has created an app called FreshEBT, which is used by roughly four million people to manage their SNAP, or food stamp, benefits. Recognizing that many of their customers were willing — even eager — to share their stories, the company distributed a series of questionnaires that brought hundreds of responses from low-income families willing to be interviewed. In some cases, like that of a single mother in Michigan named Kathryn Stewart, the conversations stretched out over a period of many months.
We think this innovative outreach and partnership brought a unique degree of richness to our poverty reporting. The sources and stories found through the partnership brought us hundreds of textured anecdotes of struggle and survival, directly from underserved communities. The result was a set of stories that showed how much Federal relief did, where it fell short and what it meant to hundreds of poor households. The metrics and feedback we received from our readers was testimony to our success in keeping this vital subject alive.
Through our partnership with FreshEBT, we transformed our approach to crowdsourcing to one that more strongly and strategically builds relationships with underserved communities we don’t routinely engage with.