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A Look Ahead at 'FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty'

Julia Maish
Melissa Fonseca in FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty. Photo: WTTW/Liam Alexander
Melissa Fonseca has worked at a pharmacy chain for 16 years, but still barely makes enough to cover her bills in Humboldt Park. Photo: WTTW/Liam Alexander

In FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty, streaming at and on the PBS app beginning January 18, we meet five people who are experiencing intergenerational poverty, to better understand the daily challenges that make their circumstances difficult to escape. FIRSTHAND executive producer Dan Protess takes us behind the scenes to learn more about the project.

Q: This is the third topic covered by the FIRSTHAND team. Why did you decide to focus the FIRSTHAND lens on poverty?

Dan Protess: We chose the topic in the spring of 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis was both exposing and exacerbating income inequality. We were hearing awful stories about Americans who had to choose between going hungry and going to workplaces where they would almost certainly get sick. This seemed like the right time to focus on a larger crisis that has been brewing for a half-century or more: a growing divide between rich and poor, and a decline in social mobility. We spent a lot of time looking at a mapping tool called the Opportunity Atlas, which showed us what we intuitively knew: that in many Chicago neighborhoods people who are born in poverty are very likely to live in poverty as adults. Our goal was to look at that map through the eyes of the people who are living that reality–knowing that the odds are stacked against them–and to witness the daily challenges they face.

Q: How were the five people featured in the documentary series chosen?

We reached out to about 60 organizations that address poverty, which connected us with 50 or so of their clients. As we met with these potential documentary subjects we were looking for all of the attributes that producers typically want to see, like whether they were thoughtful and had a good on-screen presence. But we also wanted to find people whose stories would illuminate common challenges confronting Chicagoans who are living in poverty, such as a lack of access to transportation, healthcare, and childcare. The pandemic added an additional wrinkle: so many people are spending their entire days at home, either looking for work or sitting in virtual meetings, which clearly wasn’t going to make for a compelling documentary. So we were also looking for people who had busy summers ahead of them. At the last minute, a gift landed in our laps: our producer/director Pat Odom was at a restaurant in Humboldt Park and overheard a police officer talking about poverty. That officer connected us with our fifth and final documentary subject.  

Q: What did you learn about poverty that you didn’t know before?

I’ve always had the sense that Americans viewed poverty as a moral failure–that because we have this belief that anyone can make it here, people who don’t succeed must somehow be at fault. What this project helped crystalize for me is that this attitude is not only standing in our way of adequately addressing poverty, but it’s also creating more poverty. We shy away from making much-needed investments in neighborhoods and schools because we feel that people who are living in poverty don’t deserve that investment, or because we’re convinced that they’ll abuse it. One of the results is that people who are living in poverty not only often lack the opportunities and education they need, but they also get a not-so-subtle message from society that they don’t deserve better. That message can have a really corrosive effect on a person, especially when they can clearly see the gleaming buildings downtown and ads for luxury items on social media, plus a perceived sense of entitlement coming from people who are enjoying what America has promised them. In our series, you get a glimpse of the psychological impact this has on our subjects. Not only do they lack opportunities, but they are also saddled with a real sense of shame and lack of hope.

Q: What do you hope Chicagoans take away from FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty?

Because Chicago is so segregated–racially and economically–we rarely get a firsthand look at what life looks like for people on the other side of town. For some viewers, this series will offer an opportunity to see their own stories reflected on screen. For other viewers, it will give them a fresh view of our city through the eyes of people who are struggling to get by. And my hope is that these new perspectives will allow all of us to better understand how the decisions we make as citizens and consumers can make a difference in peoples’ lives. For example, one of our subjects is a cashier at a national pharmacy chain. We’ve all stood across the counter from someone like her. This series gives us a glimpse of what her life looks like after she leaves the store, and what it’s like to raise four kids on a minimum wage job. Two of our subjects–both of whom are African American–moved to Indiana toward the end of filming, which is a difficult decision that so many of Chicago’s Black residents have made. The series allows us to witness the set of circumstances that are fueling this larger, troubling trend. But I also anticipate that, despite the difficult subject matter, this series will leave our audience feeling hopeful. We see solutions that are working, like a fascinating basic income experiment, and an innovative workforce development program. And the resiliency of all five of these people is inspiring. Their stories don’t all have happy endings, but their strength and determination give us reason to be optimistic.  

FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty is part of the Emmy Award-winning FIRSTHAND multiplatform 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, explore the expert talks, and read reported stories on the issues surrounding poverty, gun violence, and coronavirus in Chicago. Visit to reserve your spot at upcoming community discussions about poverty and don’t miss Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm on January 18 for a special episode devoted to poverty in Chicago.