How to Write About Poverty
S uppose you want to wake people up to the human cost of poverty and to energize them with some urgency towards productive social action. And suppose you are a skilled writer. Your public, though well intentioned, is ignorant and more than a little obtuse, inclined to think of the lives of the poor (especially, perhaps, the distant or foreign poor) as not equally real. How do you write, if you want to inform their perceptions and inspire useful choices?
You could, of course, present your audience with a lot of data; but data don’t easily reach the part of our minds with which we see others as fully human. (It is said of Louisa Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times that she had learned of the poor of Coketown as if they were so many ants and beetles, “passing to and from their nests”). It is plausible to think what Dickens clearly thought: that you can’t really change the heart without telling a story. What Dickens knew intuitively has now been confirmed experimentally. C. Daniel Batson’s magisterial work on empathy and altruism shows that a particularized narrative of suffering has unique power to produce motives for constructive action.