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In Pittsburgh, crucial perspectives on child poverty arrive from across the pond

In Pittsburgh, crucial perspectives on child poverty arrive from across the pond

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John O'Dowd, left, and Catriona Milosevic, of the UK's National Health Service, meet grocer Carl Lewis.
John O'Dowd, left, and Catriona Milosevic, of the UK's National Health Service, meet with grocer Carl Lewis. (Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Sometimes, reporters search the world for the right expert voice, and come up short. Then there are those instances in which the people you need fall right into your lap — even though it might take an airplane to get them there.

As reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sought to better understand the health effects of child poverty, and the extent to which those effects could be curbed, they learned that experts from the United Kingdom's National Health Service were headed to the city to discuss precisely that topic. The Post-Gazette worked with the coordinators of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded project in which Pittsburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, trade notes on a variety of health subjects. Post-Gazette reporters then got advance phone access to the visiting Scots — three medical doctors and a public health researcher — and over three days attended several events at which they talked with local health and human services notables.

The Post-Gazette even arranged to bring the Scottish delegation to a tiny borough with an outsized poverty rate, where they lunched with the owner of a corner store in what is otherwise a food desert. There, the conversation at a pop-up sidewalk cafe ranged from the mechanics of programs that get fresh fruit and vegetables to the isolated borough's families, to the power structures that, some said, cement inequality in the United States and United Kingdom.

The resulting news story started with a remarkable moment, which occurred after a panel of local children's advocates described, for the Scots and several score Americans, various efforts to address the effects of poverty. To the outsiders' eyes, it quickly became apparent that Pittsburgh had resources and well-intentioned people and organizations — but no overarching goals, targets or plan.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and create a strategic plan for Pittsburgh's kids?” asked John O’Dowd, a doctor with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service who works on improving overall health around Glasgow. “Just do it.”

The reaction in the room to that suggestion was the quintessential collective "Aha!" The reaction to the newspaper's story was similar, but played out over social media.

"Poor health rates are due to poverty. Talking about one without the other is a mistake," one local advocate tweeted, after reading the story.

The Scottish officials' visit allowed the Post-Gazette to telegraph to readers its coming intensification of coverage of concentrated poverty and its effects on health. It also forged a relationship which should bring journalistic dividends going forward. As a 2018 Center for Health Journalism Data Fellow, I will be spending the next six months mining data sources to document the region's poverty problem and explore promising solutions.

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