Steve Liss: It's in Our Backyard

Photojournalist Steve Liss puts a close-up lens on America’s deep poverty.

May 9, 2013

What is

We’re a group of photographers and writers who are putting  a face on poverty in the United States. To a large extent, poverty is hidden in plain view. It’s right here in our own backyard. We’re focusing on people who are largely ignored by the media, people in deep poverty. That is about 20 million people who live at below half the federal poverty level for a family of four, which is about $11,000, in contrast with the 46 million who are living at the poverty level. I started this campaign to introduce Americans to a side of our culture that they haven’t noticed before through exhibitions in schools, libraries, and town halls. We also train young people to use visual media to be advocates on this issue.

Do you all believe it is government’s responsibility to alleviate poverty?

Homelessness and poverty are complicated and, for many people, involve mental illness, job loss, substance abuse, or a combination. We are advocating a new paradigm, a cooperative effort between the private and public sectors. Neither political party has presented innovative solutions to the problem of entrenched poverty and the lack of affordable housing. In a country as rich as this, no one should be poor and all people should have a roof over their head.

How has working on this campaign affected your thinking about the poor?

Spending time with the people we photograph, I’m more likely to come away inspired and energized than depressed. Despite the odds, they never give up hope. They have a dignity that I wouldn’t have expected, and many are very creative and resourceful in managing day-to-day. We have to be careful about stereotypes. In the final analysis, being poor means you don’t have resources; it says nothing about your character.

In your conversations with extremely poor people, what do you hear from them about the meaning of home?

It’s a haven, a refuge, a place where your family is safe. They talk of wanting a place that allows children to dream and grow. Living in a homeless shelter is especially hard on kids. A home represents the stability that people are looking for.

Did your subjects talk of wanting to own a home?

It’s amazing how resilient that dream of home ownership is. Against all odds, and no matter how elusive it seems, living the American dream is bound up in the idea of owning a home. We heard this over and over. They don’t want a lot, but they want a home with room to breathe and space for their imagination.

Do many of your subjects have jobs?

Yes, they do. There are too many working people who don’t earn a living wage. There is something wrong when people work as hard as they can, yet they can’t afford a decent home to rent, let alone become an owner. We can’t survive as a nation if this equation stands.

What are your wishes for this effort?

Poverty alleviation has to be on the list of unfinished business. We aim to take people down a path toward solutions. They  won’t be perfect, but we can do better. Government isn’t the answer, but it can set the agenda and spark change. This project can help because you can’t fix what you can’t see.

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.