The have-nots

Left-leaning journalists explore how the other side of prosperity lives. Plus: The "S" and "F" words, Rick Springfield and a tell-all psychic friend.

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As Wall Street and mainstream news outlets continue to celebrate the United States' unprecedented prosperity, several weeklies are focusing their attention on the people who aren't benefiting from a surging economy -- and the failure of the systems that are in place to assist them.

The left-leaning, alternative media has traditionally taken it upon itself to counter coverage of beautiful and tragic lives with less-entertaining tales of the truly damned. Unfortunately, few such pieces manage to avoid condescension on the one hand and faux empathy on the other. Another common error such pieces make is to criticize the glaring flaws of support organizations without searching for solutions. Yet there are many fine examples to the contrary, as this week's offerings prove.

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Los Angeles Weekly, July 23-29

"L.A. on $7.37 a day" by Celeste Fremon

"It is mandated by the state of California to provide a basic economic floor for the state's poorest single adults who don't qualify for any other program," writes Celeste Fremon. That last-resort assistance, called General Relief, adds up to $221 and $125 in food stamps each month. Fremon's tender portrait of "Joanie Murray," a GR recipient whose primary occupation is stretching this paltry sum over 31 days and starting over, is sympathetic to the point of sentimentality. Murray is a fallen angel trapped in hell because of a few bad moves early in life. She struggles to find a job as the cut-off day for public assistance nears, but has no work experience to speak of. Fremon touches on the state's struggling welfare agencies, but for the most part this is only one half of a compelling and complicated story.

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The Village Voice, July 21-27

"No relief" by Maggie Dominic

Maggie Dominic, a 54-year-old poet and theater veteran, was struck by a car and lost all means of support two years ago. This is her second first-person account for the Voice of life inside the public assistance system. And it's horrifying -- a vision of just how few steps lie between prosperity and poverty.

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In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, July 21-28

"The Life Wage" by Lauri Apple

Since it's pretty much inconceivable that the Republican Congress would consider raising minimum wage from its current $5.15 per hour to something reasonable, local governments have been taking it upon themselves -- Decentralization! The GOP way of governing! -- to require employers to pay a "living wage," the minimum amount needed to make ends meet. Lauri Apple does a good job of making an argument for living wage legislation while outlining all the reasons such a humane law is so difficult to pass.

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The Dallas Observer, July 22-28

"Flunking Out" by Stuart Eskenazi

In 1995, Gov. George W. Bush convinced the Texas Legislature to allow the creation of charter schools, without establishing how these schools would be managed or how the drain of funds from public schools would affect the students there.
Stuart Eskenazi's thorough investigation of mismanagement, corruption and irresponsibility in the creation and running of these schools is eye-opening. The clear losers, though barely discussed in the piece, are the children, who have no say in how they are educated. And the auteur of this fiasco? "Bush, who is spending four or five days a week out of state in his quest for the presidency, could not fit an interview for this story into his schedule, a campaign official said."

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San Francisco Weekly, July 21-27

"Tenderbox" by Greg Hugunin

Those who can't afford San Francisco's rents -- $1,600 for a one bedroom is no longer considered unreasonable -- are either forced to move elsewhere or to take up residence in one of the city's various hell-holes. Greg Hugunin takes a look at the inhabitants of a crime-ridden area who are not drug fiends or prostitutes, and their struggle to improve the neighborhood. Hugunin tells this story from the perspective of those lucky enough to have roofs over their heads, some means of support and no untreated mental illnesses or physical addictions.

The Village Voice, July 21-27

"Higher and higher" by Frank Owen

When I've taken Ecstasy, I inevitably end up horking into a garbage can while feeling pretty darn gooooooood about it. (Under blue light, vomit chunks are so very pretty, you see.) But apparently, this high of highs is not enough for some people. Frank Owen's disturbing and expertly reported piece delves into the foolish practice of drug mixing, which is landing thrill-seeking New York club patrons in hospitals and morgues.

"The shag gag" by Leslie Savan

"The Spy Who Shagged Me," roughly translated into American English, is "The Spy Who Fucked Me." Not a pretty import to advertise on billboards across the U.K., where the movie is about to open. Prudish Singapore was so upset by the title, it attempted to change the offending word to "shoiked," while slang-savvy soccer moms threw tantrums in the U.S. In this amusing report, Leslie Savan reports on the Brits' reactions to this charming demonstration of cultural ignorance.

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Salt Lake City Weekly, July 15-21

"Flip the flippers" by Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart wonders why the ever popular f-word doesn't make its way into print all too often and whether there's any real difference between "f--k" and "fuck." On some level, the discussion of why one arrangement of vowels and consonants is deemed offensive while another is not may be a relevant and worthwhile inquiry. However, wondering why the city's main newspaper doesn't share expletives with its audience is what some of us call n--ve.

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Moxie, Summer 1999

"Bench-Pressing and A Really Good Butt" by Danya Ruttenberg

The latest issue of Moxie is a collection of essays by women of all shapes and sizes about their bodies. While a periodical packed with this many personal pronouns is bound to get tiresome at some point, there are some wonderful, insightful pieces included in the mix. My favorite is Danya Ruttenberg's article on how many women are working out and building muscle mass as a form of self-empowerment, only to fall prey to the same body image insecurities that they criticize in others. Eating "healthy" and working out obsessively replaces bingeing and purging -- only this form of body angst is palatable to feminists. It's a point well-made and long overdue.

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Cleveland Free Times

"It came from the eighties" by Laura DeMarco

Laura DeMarco thinks '80s music is coming back into style. And if that thought brings her happiness and her name into print, who am I to dispute it? What's fun about this fluff piece are the quotes from former heartthrob Rick Springfield, who's attempting a comeback -- poor fool. Talk about going straight to the source! Journalism students, take note. Springfield's explanation for the so-called '80s music revival? "It's the alienation of today. People are getting into the work place and not having the time to be kids any more ... Eighties music gives them comfort." Brilliantly put, Rick. Now I know to listen to "Jessie's Girl" whenever I'm feeling like an overworked old fart.

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Orlando Weekly, July 22-28

"Psychic fiends" by Debbie Nathan

Nobody would buy my writing so I became a telephone psychic! Then, not only could I manipulate stupid people's emotions for a living, I could profit as a journalist from their misery. God bless the Psychic Friends Network!

"Lots not to like" by Jeff Truesdell

More good news for suburban sprawl-haters: Disney's manufactured town of Celebration, Fla., is experiencing growing conflict as it starts to expand. In this short, sweet report, Jeff Truesdell compares the widening gap between homeowners' impressions of life in paradise and the town's press releases.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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