We began our research by first trying to understand and define the term “working poor.” We read Class Matters, By The Staff of the New York Times, and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Both books aided our understanding and compassion for those living on low wages in Northwest Arkansas. Ehrenreich had immersed herself in the lifestyle of a low-wage worker in the United States, describing her challenges to afford transportation, eat healthy food and pay her rent. We were curious to see if her experience applied to low-wage workers in Northwest Arkansas or if they were able to maintain comfortable lifestyles. Additionally, we used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics to further understand the demographics and trends involving low-wage workers.
Primarily, our team used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s five year estimates, including the ACS_16_5YR_S1701, which described poverty by race in Arkansas counties, and ACS_16_5YR_DP03, which provided details on poverty, employment and households. With these datasets, we were able to understand poverty by race and ethnicity and gender in Arkansas counties statewide. This allowed us to more accurately portray the low-wage workers we interviewed. We used Microsoft Excel to gain insight about the counties and demographics most plagued with poverty. We were able to further interpret this data using the Tableau Desktop data visualization program. We made many graphic visualizations of the Census data, which helped us understand the trends more clearly than if we had used Excel alone. It helped use better understand the lifestyles of people we would interview. Using these resources, we started brainstorming about potential interview subjects and tactics, and discussed how to operate with respect and move forward with the project.
The next step in our research involved finding people willing to share their lives with us. Northwest Arkansas had no shortage of low-wage workers and we were able to find people of differing backgrounds and lifestyles. For each interviewee, we drew data for their specific demographic or job position. Through group discussion and collaboration we found that the term “working poor” didn’t accurately represent the optimistic, motivated individuals we met.
The class met via Skype three times with Bobby Ampezzan, managing editor of Arkansas Public Media in Little Rock, who generously provided his help and insight on the emerging data and research.
Special thanks to Jon Schleuss, a reporter and graphic artist at The Los Angeles Times and a University of Arkansas alumnus, for his guest lecture on visual and data journalism.
Nicole Plumlee of the University of Arkansas WordPress design team met with the class and provided detailed assistance with the development and design of the site.
Bret Schulte, associate professor of journalism, and Gina Shelton, an instructor of journalism, provided their time and support to this project.