The Presentation About (Not) Poverty

Monday, January 07, 2013 | framing | Margy's Blog & Updates | poverty

We’re often asked to share research findings, examples, and more about building support for policy to address poverty. Here’s the presentation we shared with academics at an international conference in Cape Town and advocates across Ohio on a recent webinar.

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Talk Poverty: Words vs. Policies

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | Margy's Blog & Updates


 A town hall debate question about gun control is a somewhat unfortunate moment for the candidates to be President of the United States to start discussing issues of poverty, since it suggests that poverty and gun violence are causally linked. But that’s exactly what happened in the second debate between Governor Romney and President Obama.



Governor Romney started it – by implying that there would be less violence and poverty if more children were raised in two-parent, married households.


This reference to an old framing by conservatives had the feel of a prepared talking point looking for a question. The single-parent/poverty narrative is one of the ways conservatives undermine public funding for anti-poverty programs, suggesting that poverty is caused by bad personal choices and a lack of morals rather than systemic causes like stagnant wages and other changes in our labor market.


We hear that both candidates prepared talking points they wanted to find a way to make during the second debate. It’s not surprising that Romney would focus on marriage and reducing out-of-wedlock births as primary solutions to poverty. Here’s what he had to say.


Governor Romney


What I believe is we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have.


And you ask how – how are we going to do that? And there are a number of things. He mentioned good schools. I totally agree. We were able to drive our schools to be number one in the nation in my state. And I believe if we do a better job in education, we’ll – we’ll give people the – the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that.


But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the - the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.


Because if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will – will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system. (My emphasis throughout.)


 In fact, Romney said the word “poverty” five times in this debate, but certainly didn’t advocate for the kinds of policies that would address the issue. Meanwhile, Obama talked about policy proposals that anti-poverty advocates support without ever mentioning the “P-word”.


Obama frequently finds ways to advance anti-poverty policy without ever saying the word.  Why?  It is very common for Americans to default to thinking about poverty and the poor in terms of “non-work”, which can easily lead to resentment and an “us vs. them” mindset.  Of course many Americans work full-time and continue to be poor, but that isn’t the image that immediately jumps to mind. President Obama seems particulary aware of the negative stereotype and combats it by framing anti-poverty policies in terms of work, highlighting the fact that people in poverty are workers – currently, recently, and soon to be again.


For example, in the early days of the recession, Obama was pressed by advocates to rescind the time limits on temporary cash assistance (welfare) since people couldn’t find work. Instead, without mentioning the request, Obama expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance since many workers were not eligible under limiting definitions in the program. This policy change had a similar effect to the advocates’ request, but resulted in higher benefits for workers, and framed the issue as one of employment, rather than dependency.


In the second debate Obama said this, after Romney’s violence and parenting remarks in response to the gun control question:


President Obama

 But we can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they  come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed.


And Candy, we haven’t had a chance to talk about education much. But I think it is very important to understand that the reforms we put in place, working with 46 governors around the country, are seeing schools that are some of the ones that are the toughest for kids starting to succeed. We’re starting to see gains in math and science. When it comes to community colleges, we are setting up programs, including with Nassau Community College, to retrain workers, including young people who may have dropped out of school but now are getting another chance — training them for the jobs that exist right now. And in fact, employers are looking for skilled workers, and so we’re matching them up. Giving them access to higher education — as I said, we have made sure that millions of young people are able to get an education that they weren’t able to get before.


This isn’t a perfect answer either. Focusing on dropouts and workforce training runs the risk of making people think about irresponsibility again. But, the President was on the right track, emphasizing meeting the needs of employers, which will strengthen local economies, rather than just sharing a story about “helping” the needy.

In fact, advocates have already succeeded by encouraging the President to advance an inclusive narrative that emphasizes the important role of policies in creating an economy that reduces poverty and is good for all. In addition to his remarks outlined above, the President utilized a narrative throughout the debate that will lead to more support for anti-poverty policy, even though he avoided the word and accompanying negative stereotype. 

For example:   

  • Now, the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we are creating jobs in this country. But not just jobs, good paying jobs. Ones that can support a family.
  • My philosophy on taxes has been simple. And that is, I want to give middle-class families and folks who are striving to get into the middle-class some relief. Because they have been hit hard over the last decade. Over the last 15, over the last 20 years.

  • That’s not the kind of advocacy that women need. When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.

  • [T]here are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs.

  • People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.
    And I want to fight for them.
    That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds. When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn’t a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. 


Still, advocates are right to be concerned that there’s not enough public dialogue about the poor. What to do about it?

Most importantly, recognize that this issue easily slips into a negative storyline and “us vs. them” resentment, particularly when people are anxious about their own economic stability.  Some survey questions that track public sentiments suggest a worrisome pattern.

While we might expect voters to be more understanding and supportive since so many are struggling in the recession, that’s not the trend. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of people who agree that government has responsibility to care for the people who can’t care for themselves has declined since 2007, as has support for the statement that government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt.

Building a broad base of support requires developing a conversation that speaks across partisan divides, and the traditional “safety net” message is lacking in this regard.  Pew reports that the partisan divide over views of the social safety net is growing. Of all the issues studied by Pew, this is the area of the greatest partisan divide. There are divisions of 35 points or more about “government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.”

Instead, we need to frame this issue inclusively, using words and phrases that join people in common purpose rather than divide.  For example, a poll by the American Values Network finds that “families striving to make ends meet” and “struggling families” (ideas that most Americans can identify with) rank higher than “poor families” or “underprivileged families”.

We need to ground this issue in work to combat the stereotype of the irresponsible poor.  Again, the American Values Network finds that the top messages they surveyed make a strong connection to work:  “Twenty-six million Americans are paid so little that—even with two full-time wage-earners in the household—they’d still live in poverty.” “Working hard should mean getting ahead and not having to choose between taking your kid to the doctor or keeping a second job that pays the rent.”

We’d all be better off investing our energy and resources in talking to candidates about how to raise issues like an economy that works for all and wage stagnation, the role of government to maintain wage and benefit floors for jobs, and more. These are ways of looking at the issue that have the potential to build broad support, changing the culture of understanding among voters.

Welfare Moms on the Campaign Trail

Sunday, April 15, 2012 | Margy's Blog & Updates | News

Soooooo – did some advocate or operative actually propose responding to the Ann-Romney-Attack-Scandal (I kid) by raising the question of whether welfare Moms should be required to work?

Or did Chris Hayes decide on his own that it was important to expose an apparent inconsistency in the Romney world view? (A fair charge in this case.)

Either way, the result may be more reinforcing of the already dominant organizing idea: people on welfare are irresponsible, and therefore perhaps we have to make them work or else they won’t, etc. etc. etc. Hayes reveals this problem with his guests.

But, by highlighting the problem – he raised the issue. And now the bad frame is all over the web. Every progressive advocate repeating this wants to highlight the double standard. The problem is that too many people don’t see it as a double standard at all. 

Progressives can’t win any battle by raising the topic of welfare as a defense — particularly when the case requires agreeing that making welfare Moms work is a bad idea (even when it is).  

Happy New Year 2001 (not a typo)

Monday, January 02, 2012 | General | Margy's Blog & Updates

Mobility Agenda wishes everyone a  Happy New Year 2001, via  the National Employment Law Project . That’s right, 2001. With workers‘ wages stuck at 2001 levels, check out this short video about America’s lost decade.




Progress on License Reinstatement Policy

Sunday, December 18, 2011 | access to driving | Margy's Blog & Updates | News

Here’s a great new article citing The Mobility Agenda and making the case for reducing barriers to driving by lowering fees for reinstatement after suspension for non-driving offenses. 

Revoking a license for non-driving offenses does not only hurt an individual, but can cause serious side effects in our communities.


Chicago Tribune: People Need Cars

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | access to driving | Margy's Blog & Updates | News

The Chicago Tribune reports on The Mobility Agenda research on transportation and access to driving.

ownership of a car allows people to fully contribute to local economies through increased job opportunities, wages and hours worked.

“We forget that public transit really does not meet the needs of everyone,” Waller said, “particularly people who are working in the service economy whose schedules may not mesh very well with transit, or whose job location and home location don’t mesh well with public transit.”


Creating Good Jobs in Seattle!

Friday, September 16, 2011 | General | Margy's Blog & Updates

With an 8-1 vote, the Seattle City Council passed a landmark ordinance to ensure workers in all but the city’s smallest businesses can earn paid sick days on the job – one of the strongest such policies in the nation. The Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce, comprised of over 100 local organizations and small businesses that pushed for the measure, lauded the vote.

The crowd in City Council chambers erupts in applause as the Council passes the paid sick leave ordinance by a vote of 8-1

Reflecting broad public support for the measure, Councilmembers received thousands of emails, postcards and phone calls in favor; a recent poll of Seattle voters found 69% supported the legislation passed today.

Many local small business leaders helped craft provisions of the final ordinance.

Following Mayor McGinn’s expected signature in the coming weeks, Seattle will be the 3rd city in the nation with a minimum paid sick days standard, after Washington DC and San Francisco. The state of Connecticut passed a paid sick days bill in June, and voters in Denver will consider a paid sick days ballot measure this fall.

A recent report by the Economic Opportunity Institute estimated that nearly 190,000 people working in Seattle do not earn paid sick days – negatively impacting the local economy and business productivity.

Adapted from an article in Washington Policy Review published by Economic Opportunity Institute. 


New Partnership with Topos

Thursday, September 15, 2011 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Cross posting from Topos Partnership Blog.   

The Topos Partners are excited to announce that Margy Waller has joined Topos as a Senior Fellow as of September 1st. Margy brings a wealth of knowledgeMargy Waller at TEDx and experience to our team, and will help Topos expand the reach, depth and impact of our work.

Margy commissioned and guided a groundbreaking Topos effort that transformed ArtsWave’s role and mission, and whose results are helping arts advocates around the country think about their work in new ways.
Margy is a dynamic and sought-after presenter who teaches audiences to understand the importance of framing, as well as how to apply the lessons from efforts such as the Topos arts strategy. She has deep issue experience in a range of policy areas, particularly related to work and the economy. In addition to her position at ArtsWave, she is Founding Director of the Mobility Agenda, and has formerly been a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Senior Advisor on domestic policy in the Clinton-Gore White House, Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and Director of Public Policy at United Way of America.


Driving Lessons - On the Bus

Friday, December 31, 2010 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Here’s a nice published commentary citing the work of Mobility Agenda from New York State — but it could be nearly anywhere in the USA. 

 I’ve met a lot of riders on the bus recently who, as a result of these NFTA changes, now need to transfer multiple times to reach work. One man said he wakes very early in the morning to take three buses to get to work. Another person who works Saturdays now has to pay for a taxi to get to his employer because the NFTA eliminated Saturday bus service on that route.

….Ownership, in this case car ownership, is the latest evidence of an ever-growing divide between the haves and have-nots in our society. That’s what I have learned riding the bus.

Thanks for sharing your perspective and the shout out for our work, Greg Slabodkin.

Read more about our research & recommendations regarding car ownership and a strong local economy here

Wicked Smart: Shaping the Public Impression of Poverty

Thursday, September 16, 2010 | Margy's Blog & Updates

It’s “Poverty Day”, as they say in policy circles. (Arghhh – that’s particularly ick.) And some people have taken (wicked) smart advantage of the media attention.

The news on poverty rates is really really tough. The findings on the dilemma created by too many low-wage jobs are in. Our economy is suffering under the weight of employers that pay too little.

Census reported today: The ranks of working age people are at the highest level of poverty since the mid-1960s.

And Census counted the most poor people ever in the 51 years we’ve been tracking these numbers.

So – it should come as no surprise that someone decided this would be a good week to host a big national meeting about welfare fraud.

That’s the way to link welfare and poverty in the mind of the public. And on top of that — they get to imply that people on welfare are really just lazy cheats too. Wow. 

As a result - USA Today and papers around the country have a news article with headlines about welfare fraud on the same day we learn that poverty is up up up, especiallly for workers. 

Our opposition is really quite skilled at this framing stuff. I sure wish advocates FOR low-wage workers were as good.