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Chasing phantoms

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I'm in the student union building at North Carolina Central University, talking to Sylvester Keech about his night-shift job as a housekeeper on campus. We're here during the holidays, so the lounge is empty and echoing, and the floor has a mesmerizing gleam.

Keech--who's tall and lean with a neat mustache--doesn't have a phone or a car. Our meeting was arranged by his friend Ray Eurquhart, who heads the union that represents Durham city workers, and whose help I've enlisted in finding people willing to talk about what it's like to survive on low-wage salaries.

Keech is cooperative yet cautious about our interview. He leans back against the couch cushions and rests his hands on his knees. But he seldom looks me in the eye. I'm feeling a bit inhibited myself. My questions about his situation sound about as sensitive as the infamous "How do you feel?" line that pumped-up reporters are often heard barking at victims of natural disasters.

The problem is, talking about economic hardship can never touch the experience of living it. It's like chasing a phantom. Our discussion is all about things that aren't there, hopes that can't be fulfilled, needs that can't be met. Here is Keech's list of things he can't do on his $8-per-hour wages: buy a car, install a phone, save money, pay for Christmas presents, handle higher-than-usual heating bills, take a vacation, cover unexpected illnesses, go out to eat.

Fortunately, he's single and doesn't have kids to support. "That's one break," Keech says, with a smile just this side of bitter. "Because when I get paid, my whole check is gone. As soon as I get it, I have to pay it back out. I don't know how I'm surviving."

The momentum of our conversation stalls in that barren groove. Then I put down my pen and start asking Keech about his life outside of work: Where he's from? Where did he go to school? What's his family like? Suddenly, he's meeting my gaze and I can feel myself unwinding too.

We reminisce about what it was like to be young in the 1970s: the Vietnam War, the ever-present "partying," our siblings, our parents. Our discussion of economics takes a more personal tack as Keech tells me about his mom, who worked in the cafeteria at Duke University Hospital and held down two other jobs while raising seven kids. He touches briefly on his dream of studying diesel mechanics and finding a job that will help him shake off the constant sensation that he's dangling over a ledge.

When we say our goodbyes I feel some unseen pressure abate, as if the lid has finally been lifted off our prescribed roles. In the parking lot, I'm struck by the realization that the true sin of poverty isn't that its victims suffer--though that pain is too often overlooked. The greater crime is that it squanders human potential.

Part of righting that wrong is prying apart the themes of poverty and character. Those two subjects remain so firmly fused in our Puritan hearts and minds that we can't always see how dangerous a pair they make. The shame that flows from that connection makes it hard for poor people to talk openly about their lives. And it often blinds reporters to the human complexities they encounter on the story trail. That's why most news stories about the issue lean so hard on facts and figures and fail to touch feelings.

Eurquhart says one solution is for reporters to spend more time "putting faces on the numbers you have discovered." And I agree with him. Maybe if we approached our jobs differently, our conversations with people wouldn't seem so predatory. Maybe if we could paint a more genuine picture of who is poor and why, poverty wouldn't be so easy to ignore.--barbara solow

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