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WTTW explores intergenerational poverty in Chicago in a documentary series, reported stories, expert talks, and community discussions

For immediate release
Chicago, IL - December 16, 2020

In Chicago, your birthplace often determines your destiny. Children born in one West Side census tract between 1978 and 1983 grew up to have a median annual household income of $16,000, according to Opportunity Insights. In FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty, presented across WTTW’s digital and social platforms and in the community beginning January 18, we meet five people experiencing intergenerational poverty and facing daily challenges that make their circumstances difficult to escape.

FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty is part of the award-winning FIRSTHAND multiplatform, multi-year initiative focusing on the firsthand perspectives of people facing critical issues in Chicago. Visit the website on January 18, 2020 at to watch the documentary series and expert talks focusing on poverty in Chicago, read reported stories, visit to reserve your spot at upcoming community discussions about poverty, and watch Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm on January 18 for a special episode devoted to poverty in Chicago. 

FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty project elements launching on January 18, 2020 (

  • 15-part documentary series following five people living in poverty during the summer/fall of 2020
  • 5 expert video talks by community and thought leaders about the issues surrounding poverty and possible solutions
  • 6 reported stories exploring basic income experiments in Chicago, the cost and fees associated with poverty, the unique challenges of suburban poverty, workforce development, and the challenges facing first generation college students
  • Community discussions with experts and policymakers extending the reach of the project into Chicago neighborhoods
  • Discussion Guide for schools, libraries, and other community organizations to use to prompt conversation and analysis of poverty in Chicago
  • WTTW News Special 

“As a public media organization, it is our responsibility to respond to the issues that matter most to the people and communities in our city and region with trusted, essential content,” said Sandra Cordova Micek, President and CEO of WTTW. “In FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty, we are working to provide an up-close view of a problem impacting so many people, especially in disproportionately affected communities, throughout our city and around the country.”

“The recent COVID-19 crisis is both exacerbating – and drawing attention to – income inequality in Chicago,” said executive producer Dan Protess. “But the reality is that social mobility has been declining in America for a half century and there are vast swaths of our city where the American Dream has long been out of reach. That’s why it is so important to share firsthand accounts from people who seldom get a chance to tell their stories, to spotlight the challenges they face, and suggest how we might meet these challenges.”

The five subjects featured in FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty documentary series are:

Melissa Fonseca has worked at a pharmacy chain for 16 years, but still barely makes enough to cover her bills. Meanwhile, the lifelong Humboldt Park resident sees her neighborhood being transformed by a wave of wealthy new residents who have been afforded the advantages that always seemed out of her reach. Will Melissa ever be able to get ahead? A reunion with her estranged mom might hold the answers she’s been looking for. 

Dominetrius Chambers seemed to be poised for success: the 20-year-old graduated third in her high school class. But the next steps that a middle-class woman her age might take – college, career, an apartment – have proven elusive. Then Dominetrius was introduced to My Block, My Hood, My City, a nonprofit that introduced her to mentors and exposed her to neighborhoods around the city. Will the excitement of new people and places lead to greater opportunity?

Gary Ladehoff is one stroke of good luck away from making it out of poverty, and one stroke of bad luck away from losing everything. He has been living with his two-year-old daughter in the economically-depressed city of Zion, Illinois. This is a critical moment for Gary: a new job, car, and apartment fall into his lap, while a workplace accident threatens to set him back. Gary’s past struggles with addiction and the criminal justice system have led to previous setbacks. But now he’s getting help from an unlikely source: a police officer who once put Gary behind bars.

Patricia Jackson, her husband, and their two children live in her mother’s basement in the Roseland neighborhood on the South Side. The family’s only source of steady income was Patricia’s low-wage job at a WIC grocery, until the coronavirus pandemic forced her to take time off. Now a remarkable opportunity has landed on Patricia’s doorstep: a nonprofit called the Family Independence Initiative offered her financial assistance with no strings attached. In the short term, these cash infusions will allow the family to keep their heads above water. Looking to the future, Patricia and her husband hope to get an exciting new business off the ground. 

Andino Medina is determined to regain custody of his two-year-old daughter. But first he will need to contend with the criminal justice system and DCFS. Born in the Marquette Park neighborhood to a tight-knit, hard-working family, Andino’s lifelong struggles with addiction led to a cycle of crime and incarceration. During his most recent stay in jail, Andino’s girlfriend gave birth to Eva, who has given him a renewed sense of purpose. In order to get her back, he’ll need to pay off a mountain of court fees, and find the affordable, stable housing that DCFS requires. But he has a fighting chance, thanks to a social service agency and an exciting new job. 

The five experts featured in the FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty talk series are:

Audra Wilson, President and CEO, Shriver Center on Poverty Law
Unbuckling the “Bootstraps” Narrative
Audra Wilson explodes the myth that people in poverty made personal choices that put them there.

Juan Salgado, Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago
Talent Not to Be Missed
Juan Salgado explores an often-overlooked pathway out of poverty: community colleges and their unique position to meet people “where they are.”

Mark Jay, PhD, Sociologist, University of California, Santa Barbara
Policing the Poor
Mark Jay examines how mass incarceration and police violence overwhelmingly target poor people, regardless of race.

Ebony Scott, Partnership Director, Family Independence Initiative
Defund the War on Poverty
Ebony Scott explores why poverty has persisted in spite of the "War on Poverty" launched in 1964.

Calvin Holmes, President, Chicago Community Loan Fund
Money with Attitude
Calvin Holmes explains how the cycle of poverty can be broken with long-term investment that’s aimed at helping families to grow wealth.

Lead support for FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty is provided by The Grainger Foundation and Becky and Lester Knight, The Knight Family Foundation. Major support is also provided by Jim and Kay Mabie; Rande and Cary McMillan; Butler Family Foundation; Denny and Sandy Cummings; The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation; Lew Collens; and Kristin Carlson Vogen and Shawn Vogen. (As of December 14, 2020)

The FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty documentary series is produced and directed by Pat Odom. Director of Photography: Alejandro Marin; Editor: Jude Leak; Associate Producer: Jessica Martinaitis; Original Score: Allie n Steve Mullen; Art Director: Linda Fox; Executive Producers: Dan Protess. FIRSTHAND: Talks Producer: Judith McCray. Reported Stories Editor: Arionne Nettles. Community Engagement Lead: Tim Russell. Executive Producer: Anne Gleason.

WTTW is the PBS member station in Chicago, committed to creating and presenting unique media content across distinct television and digital channels – WTTW, WTTW Prime, WTTW Create, WTTW World, WTTW PBS Kids 24/7,, and the PBS/WTTW video app. Recognized for award-winning journalism and local productions – such as CHICAGO TONIGHT, BLACK AND LATINO VOICES, THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO FROM THE AIR, CHICAGO BY ‘L’, CHECK, PLEASE!; digital-first series FIRSTHAND, URBAN NATURE, and FOODPHILES; and national productions PREHISTORIC ROAD TRIP and NATURE CAT – WTTW presents the very best in public affairs, arts and culture, nature and science, history and documentary, and children’s public media content. Connect with WTTW on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.