Positioning the policy framework as being about cutting poverty undercuts the bigger, more inclusive idea that we're all in this together, she says. Rather than talking about fixing the plight of the poor, we should describe solutions as creating an economy that works for all.
Waller and her co-founder, Shawn Fremstad, presented at this week's EARN (Economic Analysis and Research Network) Conference in Minneapolis. Their critique of the language tracks with the thought process behind the Growth & Justice "Invest for Real Prosperity" framework, in which we described a strategy to benefit all Minnesotans, rather than prescribing specific solutions that carve out individual beneficiaries.
Waller and Fremstad called out three problems with a focus on reducing poverty.
- Poverty is a flawed measure that doesn't describe people's actual needs. It's an absolute measure based on 1950's household budgets designed to determine who might be starving. But the notion of a decent life in today's U.S. is multidimensional. It encompasses one's opportunity to fullly participate in economic, social and cultural life. A relative measure — such as who's below the middle instead of who's on bottom — would offer a different way of thinking about people who are falling below what society considers a decent life.
- Many Americans hold conflicting values and beliefs about poverty. In effect, they love the sinner — feeling empathy toward people in extremis — but hate the sin, believing individuals are responsible for their own failures. The beliefs that hard work will be rewarded and that bad outcomes result from bad choices reflect bedrock American values. At the same time, most understand that low pay, demeaning work, loose work standards and eroding benefits represent real disadvantages. Rather than try to change the "poor are too dependent" beliefs, progressives ought to better convey the systemic forces at work in the economy that threaten low-wage working families.
- Defining the problem as "poverty" invites division and over-simplification. It frames an us-versus-them discussion and pits a laundry list of policy solutions versus an appeal to personal responsibility. The laundry list will get cut short every time by media looking for an individual hook. Busy audiences are already familiar with that approach and process it as they've been conditioned well before they get to any data. Waller says it's not enough to present the facts when presenting policy goals; we have to also anticipate how the debate will influence public perception.
Stories presenting the overarching policy goal, Waller and Fremstad argue, should be framed around the forces that undermine economic mobility and social inclusion — not as "plucky family prevails against the odds." We should not try to employ a persuasion model, Waller says. Instead, we should emphasize the already-held values and ideas that support a progressive agenda, while muting language that evokes contrary ideas.
We'll take up their "social inclusion" notion in another post.
— Charlie Quimby