What Poverty Steals

I’m fascinated by the tangle of life expectancy, wealth and poverty, income inequality and social mobility.

My data viz was prompted by new research detailing poor people’s shorter life expectancies and The Atlantic article about the 47 percent of cash-strapped Americans who said they couldn’t come up with $400 for an unexpected expense.

Economic stability is about income, but it’s also about assets and wealth. It’s about having a cushion to shield you from the inevitable unexpected expense of car repairs or a medical emergency.

Poor people don’t have that margin of error, which is one of the reasons that economic mobility is so low.  Kids who are born poor in Shelby County (the county that holds Memphis) die poor. Only 2.6 percent of children raised in the bottom quintile of household income in the Memphis area rise to the top quintile by adulthood. According to a New York Times interactive, “Shelby County is very bad for income mobility for children in poor families. It is better than only about 9 percent of counties.”

Since Shelby County is majority black and a disproportionate share of the poor people are black, I wanted to focus specifically on black people. (Hispanics also have an insanely high poverty rate, but there’s relatively few of them in Shelby County/Memphis and most are recent immigrants.)

Here’s what I wanted to determine for people in the county where I live, Shelby County:

If poor people had the same life expectancy of rich people, how much more could they expect to earn over those additional working years? If you add up all those dollars, how many millions of dollars are poor black people in Shelby County forfeiting simply because they’re poor, black and live where they do?

If I could answer this question, I wanted to show the data similar to how Periscopic animated the years lost to gun deaths. http://guns.periscopic.com/?year=2013

periscopic gun deathsSpoiler alert: I don’t have the data to answer the question I was trying to answer. Especially not on the $$ end.

Nevertheless, I did a short video, 1:06. And I figured out how to add music.

I was going to build a little bar chart showing the difference in life expectancy between poor people and rich people in Shelby County – or one comparing the income disparity in life expectancy by the biggest counties in Tennessee, but there wasn’t a whole lot of difference. And I can do a bar chart, so I was trying to figure out what I didn’t know how to do.

*** I’m pretty sure my math is all wrong, because there’s far more than 26,000 black adults in Shelby County who are poor (as defined by living in the bottom quartile of household income). Would love to think through how to answer my question with someone who knows.

#illgowithyou transgender bathroom laws

My action is related to this story about North Carolina’s shameful transgender law. I wanted to give allies an idea of one thing they might do. So I created a YouTube video in Keynote with some really bad motion graphics.

LGBT rights are the civil rights of my generation (although I could make a good argument that neither people of color nor women have achieved full participation in American society), but often people who want to be allies don’t know what to do. This is a very practical step to take.

The idea for motion graphics came from one of the blogs Ethan recommended in this week’s readings (although I’m not sure which blog now). Here’s the inspiration video from Linda Dong.

More on restroom access rights here from Lambda Legal. The “I’ll Go With You” ally site is here.

How bad does Shelby County discriminates against black businesses?

This bad. (The link is to a YouTube video. And yes, I know the first slide says it’s under 2 minutes but the video is 2:12. That will be updated in later versions.)

I’ve written about the racial disparity in municipal contracting processes – which sounds dry as sh*t, I’d be the first to admit – but it’s actually really important. (Here’s an Infogr.am graphic I created a couple of years ago on the topic.)

The short version: Black people finance their own discrimination when they pay taxes into a county government that then awards an unfair share of county contracts to businesses owned by white men. This has been happening in the county (and city) where I’m from for decades.

My video is an attempt to explain the issue by stressing the consensus values in the middle of Hallin’s Sphere and the deviance of continuing to use tax dollars to give one group an unfair advantage over another.

Here’s the story I was trying to explain. The story includes the numbers I cite, but people who won’t read the story WILL watch a video.

I’d like to redo it and make it snappier, add some sound effects and pictures. Some of the slides with not much text could have been shorter, but there’s no (easy) way in Keynote to vary the length of the slides.

Creating this was a beast. (Pro tip: If you create a Powerpoint, export the slides as JPEGs and import the JPEGs into iMovie, the stills will be so blurry as to be unreadable. A workaround: Use Keynote to create a slideshow, export it as a QuickTime movie and then upload to YouTube or wherever. Or alternately, get a legit video editor like Premiere or Final Cut.)

I think THIS is the future of news. I’d like to create a series of videos like this, ideally under a minute. The series (#MLK50, referenced at the end of the video) will be focused on how public policy reinforces racial/economic injustice in Memphis – and what policies would create a more economically equitable environment.

My “fierce urgency of now” is that in two years, Memphis will mark the 50th anniversary of the violent interruption of Martin Luther King’s vision of economic equality. King came to Memphis to make sure that local government treated mistreated black sanitation workers fairly, but 48 years later, the black community is still getting the short end of the stick.

Digital Diary. A Haiku

A haiku:

Diary breeds shame

Binge watching Nurse Jackie all week

Netflix is Satan



  1. I spend waste a sh*t ton of time on Netflix, FB and Twitter.
  2. I read two actual dead-tree documents last week – a Boston Globe paper and about 40 pages of a book.
  3. My attention span is shot. I rapid cycle through 10 apps in 20 minutes.

Word Cloud Digital Diary

Based on my calculations, I spent a shameful share of my waking hours on Netflix, followed by FB and Twitter, which is where I get a lot of my news. (More on that later.)  Email didn’t take as much time as I feared, mainly because I get a lot of newsletters I don’t read. If you exclude Netflix, easily 70 percent of the media I consume is news from other publications/NPR.

I was surprised to see that I didn’t listen to any podcasts last week, although I subscribe to several. I think this was a function of being in a lot of Ubers and it feels rude to have the earbuds in while being Uber-ed.

I didn’t include substantive IRL conversations (almost all with other Nieman fellows/staff or Harvard students/professors) or phone calls (almost all with family members) or FaceTime chats (all with my niece and nephew back in Memphis).

Continue reading

Wendi C. Thomas

Wendi Flyer HeadshotHi y’all! I’m a journalist based in Memphis. I’ve worked as a reporter, columnist or editor at The Indianapolis Star, The (Nashville) Tennessean, The Charlotte Observer, The Memphis Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Flyer. I’m a 2016 Nieman fellow and when I’m done, I’m going back to Memphis to use journalism to spark a citywide conversation about Memphis’ failure to live up to Martin Luther King’s dream of economic justice. (The 50th anniversary of his assassination is April 4, 2018.)

I think a lot about what tools can be used to keep elected officials accountable and how citizens can give elected officials feedback immediately with the goal of shaping public policy to benefit the poor. I know good journalism has the power to change communities but I don’t know exactly how to deploy it in a startup to change my community. (And I don’t know how to fund it either.) Hoping to solve all these challenges this semester, with time left over for whirled peas. 🙂

When I’m not reading studies about racial disparities, I’m playing Ruzzle on my phone, watching the new Beyonce video, tweeting at @wendi_c_thomas or Facebooking.

Medium: A Middle Finger to the Gatekeepers

I’m a big fan of any tool that allows freelance journalists/citizen journalists to present their content in as polished of a way as you’d find on a mainstream news site.

That’s why I like Medium, which could be described as a blogging platform, but with more class and potential. It’s easy to use (easier than WP by far), allows you to embed photos and videos and aesthetically, it’s pleasing. (Lots of white space. White space is good.)

Writes Harry McCracken in Time:

Medium is attractive if you only have the yen to say something every so often. It’s about individual pieces of content, not a surging sea of items.

The content you find here feels official, serious and credible. The White House posted the text of Obama’s last state of the union address on Medium first. Medium is where important people (Twitter engineer Leslie Miley) go to explain why they quit their job. There is real journalism here.

Medium also gives you just a little bit of metrics – enough to show you where you should promote your content. Here are some metrics on a story I posted a while back.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.42.14 PM

The site’s sleek look makes the content feel more reliable, so for independent writers who can’t find a home for a story – or just want to share something quickly but in a polished way, Medium is a good fit.

Bonus: 16 Journalism Tools & Resources to Explore in 2016


Wendi C. Thomas

Posted in All