Is It Just Human Interest?

Strange that something so massive and significant, so disruptive to everyone’s life, is so hard to find on the front pages of our papers or in the evening news on TV. Occasional new statistics, of course, revised government proposals, and a slew of human interest stories – but that’s about it.

There are several common psychological reasons for this. By now, the recession is old news – and old news, like old information, doesn’t grab our attention. Nor, of course, does it sell. In addition, we prefer news stories that mesmerize and shock us: scandals, deaths, bombs or natural catastrophes. And then there is the fact that, for the most part, the news that surrounds us is sad and disappointing. Who wants to know about it? Consciousness is highly selective. It edits out the repetitive, the unimportant, and the much of the unpleasant.

But I think something else is at work here: the fact that the recession affects us all so differently. What has disappeared from the front pages is the plight of those on the margins: the unemployed, the dispossessed, the uninsured.  (See buried in yesterday’s New York Times a story headlined: Safety Net Is Fraying for the Very Poor.) Our common understanding of who we are as a whole all too frequently edits out those who struggled to keep up, who gave up and disappeared.  Even offical statistics often find their way around them.

This is not just about the chronically poor.   Many in the middle class have moved away from homes they lost or jobs that were eliminated.  Retired early to vacation homes or moved in with relatives, we often lost sight of them.  The shuttered stores and businesses, as well, and those who have become reclusive, afraid or ashamed to go out.

“It’s a good thing we have the stimulus package,” said the senior researcher quoted in the Times, author of a study on how the poor are coping.  “But what happens to the most vulnerable families in two years, when most of the provisions expire?”

Will they reappear then? And the others?