Stories from the Line presents bold, honest, and effective documentary portraits that navigate the complexities and nuance comprising the experience of millions of Americans struggling to rise and remain above the poverty line.

Through a series of short films that combine interviews with intimate vérité-style scenes at home with family, at work, and at school, Stories from the Line provides an accessible window into the lives of families responding to the challenges of poverty in America.

Although each sketch stands alone, taken as a whole, they provide a counter narrative to the over- generalized and often prejudiced stereotypes of poverty frequently presented in the media.  Both meaningful and hopeful, Stories from the Line encourages a life-affirming, higher-level discourse that inspires college students and recent graduates out of apathy, cynicism, and inertia and toward a vision of collective responsibility, social obligation, and empathy for families battling poverty in America.  Ultimately, we wish to foster a sense that every individual’s life has dignity and value and everyone’s health, education, and potential to succeed are worth safeguarding.

Stories from the Line is presented by Impact America in collaboration with the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Impact America is a nonprofit organization that engages college students and recent graduates in addressing community needs, empowering a generation to promote positive change through collaborative efforts in the communities we serve.

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Cultural Context: The experience of poverty is both underrepresented and misrepresented

Whether living in suburbs, urban communities, or rural areas, the majority of Americans have segregated themselves into communities of social homogeneity with few opportunities for social networks across class and racial lines.  Increasingly, we are isolating ourselves in communities with people who act, talk, and think just like us.

Hearing our own preconceived ideas about what is right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the social-media feeds we read, and the neighborhoods we live in, we now live in a giant feedback loop. Safe within our like-minded communities, we are offered no opportunities to engage with or learn about individuals and families unlike ourselves.  The separation between affluent and lower-income families is particularly stark.  With no personal connections to financially struggling families, middle-class and wealthy Americans rely on misperceptions and stereotypes to inform their opinions and attitudes about poverty.

Unfortunately, even the most innovative and successful anti-poverty initiatives receive little attention from college-educated Americans, as the entire issue remains invisible to far too many.  The issue is conspicuously absent from political campaigns, an indication that poverty is not a national priority.  Indeed, in the 2012 national election cycle, poverty was barely mentioned. A study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog organization, found substantive discussion of poverty in just 0.2 percent of campaign news reports.

Few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty. These misperceptions distort our civic and charitable efforts as well as our domestic policy making.

  • Misperception: Poverty affects a relatively small number of people.
  • Misperception: Most of those living in poverty are African American.
  • Misperception: Most individuals living in poverty are in inner cities.
  • Misperception: Poverty is simply a result of not working hard enough.

Although most Americans believe these statements, each assumption is definitively wrong.


Contrary to common belief, the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty is exceedingly high.  Nearly 54 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year in poverty or near poverty – below 150 percent of the poverty line (annual income less than $36,450 for a family of four).  In addition, half of all American children will at some point during childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps..

Only approximately 10 percent of those in poverty are African Americans living in extremely poor urban neighborhoods.  Households in poverty can be found in a variety of urban and suburban landscapes, as well as in small towns and communities across rural America.  This dispersion of poverty has been increasing during the past 20 years, particularly within suburban areas.  According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers, two-thirds of those living below the poverty line identified themselves as white — a number that has held fairly steady over the past several decades.

Furthermore, the vast majority of impoverished families include a parent (or parents) who works, but poor families’ incomes are affected by low wages, higher rates of periodic unemployment (which is inextricably linked to higher rates of unemployment among individuals with less formal education), and involuntary part-time employment.

These misperceptions distort our understanding of the nature and causes of poverty and our subsequent approaches to addressing it. Furthermore, by erroneously narrowing our definition of who is poor to a small subset of the population experiencing poverty, we not only place an undue social burden on that small subset, but also do disservice to the millions of others whose experience of poverty goes unnoticed by the broader public.

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Addressing Misperceptions & Inspiring Action

Certainly, correcting misperceptions and improving our knowledge of the statistics of poverty is an integral step to addressing issues of poverty.  But most citizens are not motivated to assist in tackling societal challenges on the basis of factual knowledge alone.

We also need a narrative imagination: the ability to feel what it would be like to be in the shoes of a person different from ourselves and to understand the emotions, fears, and desires someone else might have.

Such a narrative imagination awakens in us an engaged empathy as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as safe streets, good schools, and public health.  Just as our cities and states have built sectors of vital infrastructure through deliberate planning and investment, so should we take a similar, deliberative approach in developing our narrative imagination and empathy infrastructure.

A narrative imagination, a deep sense of empathy for others, and compassion for those who are unlike us are essential to developing qualities of ethical citizenship.  One measure of citizenship is charitable giving – how much and what percentage of our income we donate to causes and organizations supporting individuals in need. Ken Stern writes in The Atlantic:


“One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income.  In 2011, the wealthiest Americans – those with earnings in the top 20 percent – contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity.  By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid – those in the bottom 20 percent – donated 3.2 percent of their income.”


But in socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods – communities where affluent families have regular interactions with poorer families – affluent households were more generous than comparably wealthy families living in homogeneously affluent areas (where more than 40 percent of households earned at least $200,000 per year). This finding underscores the facts that exposure to human need drives generous behavior and the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their lack of engagement.

A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, found that when middle- and upper-class research subjects are hooked to neuro-imaging machines and look at photos of the poor, their brains often react as if they are seeing objects, not people., “Notably, though, when both groups were exposed to film footage of children in poverty, the compassion of the wealthier group began to rise, and the groups’ willingness to help others became almost identical.”.

In the absence of socioeconomically diverse communities, we must seek out and advance strategies that encourage growth and development of the empathy infrastructure in all Americans.

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Developing an Empathy Infrastructure: Stories from the Line

Since our founding in 2004, Impact America’s measures of success have primarily been the deliverables of our work, such as the number of children screened for vision problems and the number of taxpayers served through our free-tax-preparation initiative for low-income families.  While we have demonstrated the significant educational value these projects have for the college students and recent graduates who drive them, Stories from the Line adds to Impact America’s capacity by allowing us to more fully develop the narrative of low-income families and communities. The film series also gives us the ability to reach an audience broader than the young people who directly participate in our service initiatives.

Most nonprofit and service organizations utilize media and stories about the people they serve as a means of increasing support from potential donors.  The kind of media utilized tends to portray disadvantaged populations as helpless victims and volunteers or donors as saviors.  The imagery and tone, whether intentional or not, can be condescending and can deepen the sense of “otherness” that perpetuates our social and cultural divide.

Impact America’s Stories from the Line invites young filmmakers to create authentic documentary portraits that reflect the complexities of poverty in America.

At its most basic level, Stories from the Line provides a building block for developing empathy, giving students and recent college graduates the opportunity to experience – and then share with a larger audience – the emotions and perspectives of people with backgrounds different from their own.

Stories from the Line offers filmmakers and viewers a path for learning the personal stories of individuals outside their immediate spheres.  While observing a family’s experience, they inevitably begin to understand what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.

Stories from the Line equips college students and recent graduates with critical tools and skills, providing them with new lenses for understanding the dilemmas they will confront as adults, raising questions about their unexamined assumptions, and connecting them with others who can inspire them to live a life of empathy and awareness.  Stories from the Line challenges viewers to look not only at an immediate need but also at the underlying, systemic biases and policies that help perpetuate poverty in America.

 

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