A Different Sort of Economy Story

"So often I see these stories in other outlets about, 'Well the economy is doing better.' But the question I always find myself asking is: Better for whom?"

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Have you ever read a piece that makes you see, for the first time, how a policy actually and dramatically changes lives? When I read Chabeli Carrazana’s piece on the child tax credit, detailing the ways it was actually lifting individual families out of poverty, that’s how I felt.

Chabeli’s reporting, like all reporting at The 19th, is explicitly, unapologetically, boldly intersectional — an approach that necessarily changes the way you approach a story, and the sort of stories that end up getting told. It’s so rare to see that sort of approach to economic reporting in particular, and I wanted to hear more about her road to The 19th (which, to my mind, has the best morning newsletter in the business — one I actually open every day) and what happens when you start asking questions that many (white male) economic reporters do not.

What happens when you center people providing the labor instead of “the economy”? What happens when you say, well, the economy is on the rebound…but for whom, exactly? Well, you end up with stories like “Moms spent the equivalent of a full-time job on child care last year — while working at the same time,” and “Barriers for Black women set U.S. economy back by $500 billion,” and “How the pandemic has widened the Latina wealth gap.”

I hope you’ll explore Carrazana’s truly excellent reporting — and think about what she says below the next time you read a story, any story, about the economy.

Can you tell us about how you got to where you are today and interested in the things you’re interested in?

Before The 19th, I was a business reporter covering local news in Florida — out of Miami and Orlando. I never expected to be an economy writer until I took an internship in college at the Miami Herald on the business desk and just loved it. I think there’s this misconception that business stories are dry, but, for me, business stories have always been people stories. They’re stories about the lifeblood of this country, of families, of the ways work can fulfill us and change us but also strangle us and silence us. There are many directions you can take when covering business, and I should probably thank all of my editors for letting me always go in the direction I wanted — which was to focus on labor. 

I always think of the workers first, and it wasn’t until the last year or so that I’ve really started to think about why. I was born in Cuba and moved to the U.S. with my mom when I was five years old. We didn’t have a car in the first few years, so we’d walk to school and to doctor’s appointments. My mom was an engineer in Cuba but she couldn’t transfer her degree here, so she worked as a hotel housekeeper for years. Then she was a school crossing guard. My grandmother, when she joined us here a few years later, was a child care worker. Like a lot of immigrant families, we struggled and we saw those around us struggle with punishing work that did not pay well. As our family started moving here, they’d go through the same cycles, working in bakeries, as home health aides, as retail workers. 

When I sent in my application for The 19th, that is what I wrote about. I talked about how my experiences had helped me to write some of the stories I cherished most from my career so far — one in Miami about a hotel housekeeper's four-hour commute by bus to work, and a series in Orlando about Disney workers living in near poverty, sleeping in the parking lot at night. The folks at The 19th were also thinking about the job in the same way, and for the first time, my lived experiences were treated an asset. Errin Haines, our editor at large, called it my superpower. And to my complete and total shock, I got the job. 

One of my favorite pieces of yours came out last month — and showed the very real ways that the child tax credit payments are helping create a visible route of our poverty for so many families. Can you tell me more about the reporting process for that story in particular? 

We have been following the child tax credit story really closely since the start of the year when we heard that it was on a path to passage. I didn’t know much about it before that, and it’s wonky — it’s the kind of subject that takes some time to understand before you can even get onboard with following it. My first approach was a story on Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the person to whom we owe this credit expansion but who rarely gets the credit. DeLauro had been pushing for what we now have — a credit that is available to the poorest families in the country — since 2003. I wrote the story as part profile on her and her fight, and part analysis of the history of the credit. 

My favorite part of that story was the intersection between her lived experience and her work: how the example her parents had set for her, talking to folks in their community about their challenges around their kitchen table, is what set the groundwork for her career. At the end of that story, I wrote, “She’s watching the birth of her idea, decades in gestation. Reaching this point has come with a deeper realization, too, that cultural shifts are sometimes built in lifetimes, through work, community and, sometimes, conversations around dinner. A few years ago, the city of New Haven erected a sculpture honoring DeLauro’s family. It was shaped like a kitchen table.” 

After that I knew we would stay on it. But through all the stories we wrote, all the explainers and the updates on where it was on its way to passage, I had not yet written a story on the people it would impact. So I saved that one for the day the credit started to hit bank accounts — July 15. I went back to all the community organizations I had written about in the previous stories, who were then working to get people signed up. I asked if they had any families who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the credit. I got back more responses than I knew what to do with. 

The main source in that story, Syrita Powers, came to me from Jennifer Burdick, an attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia who I spoke to for a story on who may get left behind. I think Syrita and I talked for almost an hour. The way she described the credit, I’ll never forget it. Her three daughters have special needs and they need the money for things I hadn’t considered, like seat covers and laundry detergent because two of the girls are incontinent. As she put it, they needed it for things that preserve their basic human dignity. 

All of the interviews for that story were hard. I cried during all of them. In one, with a mom who had experienced postpartum depression, Lori Ament, I told her about my recent miscarriage. It just came out. When you’re talking to people about the hardest moments of their lives, you have to show up. You have to bring yourself to the table and be willing to be vulnerable, too. I want them to know that I care and I’m listening — really listening — and that the person who is going to write their story is doing it from a place of compassion. 

As a sort of secondary question, I feel like the child tax credit has not received the hype it deserves? This is a truly life-changing policy, and it seems like Democrats, in particular, would want to be shouting its virtues from the rooftops. What do you think is going on here — is it a pandemic overload, the fact that it’s summer, Democrats just generally doing a poor job of communicating policy benefits, or what the media is choosing to cover? 

It is the most significant anti-poverty policy we have undertaken as a nation in decades, yes. I think it’s a bit of a victim of its wonkiness. “Child tax credit” does not sound sexy or exciting at all. Most people shut down when they hear that term. We’ve had to write two in-depth explainers for this topic alone, which is really rare, because there are so many questions. And I think both of those stories have been among the most read of the ones we’ve written on the credit expansion. 

But it might also be a combination of all these factors. People are tired and they’re tired of reading about hardship. The six Democrats who worked on the credit — Reps. DeLauro, Suzan DelBene and Ritchie Torres and Sens. Michael Bennet, Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker — have been working hard to communicate its effects, but there are a lot of priorities soaking up airtime. That goes for the media, too. 

How is reporting on the economy through the lens of gender different from previous reporting that you’ve done? Does it transform the way you conceive of stories, the way you do actual reporting — and how, if at all, does it change the way those stories are then received? 

I think we have a tendency to treat things with broad strokes, particularly on economy coverage and poverty coverage. Who is “the poor?” When you report through a gender (and racial) lens, suddenly everything is in focus. You are looking at all the different constructs that bind us and create these situations where we find ourselves — situations that chart our paths before we get a chance to choose the route. Reporting in this way has changed everything about how I work, what I look for, my voice as a writer. I’m surprised I didn’t do it more before. Suddenly you realize that gender and race are the story and if we don’t recognize the role they have, then we are missing the point. 

Every month, for example, I cover the new economic data when it’s released (very nerdily referred to as Jobs Day). And so often I see these stories in other outlets about, “Well the economy is doing better.” But the question I always find myself asking is: Better for whom? Because Black women still have nearly twice the unemployment rate as White women. They and Latinas lag behind every other group month to month to month.

This women’s recession — that I’ve followed since my first day at The 19th — is really now a recession for women of color. And there is so much that says about how we as a nation have failed these women, who are the majority of our home health aides and our child care workers in a year that has upended care. At The 19th, we’ve kept that in mind as we’ve worked through the year. When I did a big follow-up piece on the women’s recession, I knew we had to have women of color in it because the trend had been that women of color were still struggling.

Keeping those things in mind — gender, race and how they intersect — guides where I look, who I talk to and how deeply I look under the hood of the data. And, I should add, also while recognizing that the folks who write the surveys that we base our data on are older white men. So what are missing because they are not asking those questions? 

What’s the story that you feel like you’re always trying to figure out a way to tell?

I feel like it’s the story I’m trying to tell all the time (to varying degrees of success) about how hard work doesn’t always equal accomplishment in this country. It’s a story unraveling the great falsehood that people who live in poverty don’t work hard enough and are not worthy of work that pays them well. I would love to tell the story of what it really looks like to power this country through work that is regarded as simple or inessential or lesser — and so, you, by extension, are regarded that way. 

Whose (reporting) work is making you ridiculously jealous right now? 

Oh gosh so many people. Tina Vasquez at The Counter is just essential reading for me. She wrote a story about workers in poultry plants in North Carolina recently that I had been trying to write but just couldn’t find the right way into. I had spoken to the main source in her story! And then when I saw Tina did it, she wrote it the way it should have been written, I was jealous in all the good ways.

I also really love Bethany Barnes’ work at the Tampa Bay Times. I’ve been following her career for a long time, but she recently wrote a story on teens who reported sexual comments made by their science teacher and how those accusations unraveled their lives. At the end, she wrote in detail about how she reported the story, how one source led her to the next. It’s just a master class. 

And Jessica Contrera at the Washington Post has written some of my favorite stories of all time. There is one she wrote at the beginning of the pandemic about all the workers whose lives were upended just so they could produce a $20 burger. She follows it from the ranchers to the restaurant workers to the delivery drivers. 

It’s that story again, the one I want to tell, about the work we don’t see and how it powers us, but also how it strips people of their power. 

You can find Chabeli’s work at the 19th here, and follow her on Twitter here. If you have questions for her, please comment below!

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