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).  

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. 



Note to Mayor Bloomberg - Offer Paid Sick Days Instead

Sunday, April 04, 2010 | Margy's Blog & Updates

When Mayor Bloomberg proposed to test reducing poverty by paying for “good behavior”, we thought it was such a bad idea that I went on FOX NEWS to explain our concerns. It seems we had good instincts about this one. 

Back in 2007, we urged the Mayor to instead use his power and influence to improve the local economy by making bad jobs into better jobs, arguing that this would be a more likely way to reduce poverty and benefit the whole community at the same time.

Plus, we noted that this approach would avoid the downside potential of reinforcing the widely held perception that poor behavior is the primary cause of poverty — rather than recognizing the impact of jobs that don’t pay enough and don’t provide benefits, not even paid time off.

Finally, we cheered testing new ideas and taking risks, especially when you engage one of the world’s best research firms to monitor results.

This week, the very qualified and distinguished people at MDRC released the first report on the outcomes of the Mayor’s initiative. 

To his credit, the mayor was careful to announce the mixed (at best) results without blaming the residents of NYC. Instead, he and his staff noted that it’s important to take risks on new strategies. 

“If you never fail, I can tell you, you’ve never tried new, innovative things,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

 Good point.










Back in 2007, we encouraged the mayor to test other ideas — like guaranteeing time off to all workers, as other cities have done.

Strengthening the local labor market by improving jobs would be worth trying now.

Lessons from Experience

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | Margy's Blog & Updates | News

John Edwards “says his explicit framing of poverty was never intended as a winning campaign tactic.”

In this review of the recent history of policital talk about poverty for American Prospect magazine, Alec MacGillis talks to John Edwards and many others (including – full disclosure – your blogger).

Many of those interviewed seem to think that unless we use the word “poverty”, we aren’t really talking about it. I’m left wondering what the policy and think tank mafia will make of the history.



News Brief Thursday, December 11

Monday, December 15, 2008 | News


Fired up about poverty
“Noting that ”the State of Poverty is America’s most populated state – 37 million people,“ the Shriver Center recommended a 12-point plan to confront poverty.”
Have you tried Al-Anon’s 12-point plan? Might help you finally kick the habit of talking about poverty.

Poverty hurts performance of kids in school
“This is about the broader social and community problems that hold kids back…”
“Poverty” also hurts policy. Why not focus on those social and community problems instead?

Poverty hits home in southern New Jersey classrooms
“Schneider said there must be greater recognition of the services poor families need beyond just education – and schools are the ideal place to offer them.”

Careful – sounds like you’re moving closer to talking about inclusion than poverty. Finally gettin‘ over that fear of success?

Why Do Americans Still Hate Welfare?
“In the 1960s, policy makers and the media began to focus on poverty and anti-poverty measures for the first time since the Great Depression. But in the process, the latter appears to have offered a distorted image of the American poor.”
And that’s the image – true or not – you’re projecting every time you talk about poverty.

Remember ’Hunger in America?‘ It’s Still Here
“In the 1960s, the media’s direct or implicit question was: ”How can a country this wealthy let children go hungry?“ By the Reagan era and for many subsequent years, the implicit question asked by the media became:  ”Why are all these undeserving people getting benefits with our tax dollars?“”

It’s all about the framing (and the Big Bad ’Blame the Morals‘ Wolf has been blowing the Sympathy Frame of your Poverty House down for years). Time for a change?

Illinois governor arrested in corruption scandal
If you’re so desperate to talk about poverty, may I suggest…poverty of conscience?


Bloomington between ’rock and a hard place‘ in ’living wage‘ issue
“”In a 2-to-1 vote … the voters say that they want us to be compassionate about what we pay our employees,“ Stockton said, noting there was an 80 percent voter turnout in the referendum.”
Is that ’hard place‘ in your heart, Bloomington?

New jobs offer less than living wage
“When families are unable to earn living wages, many are forced to make the difficult choices between adequate health care, balanced nutrition and paying the bills.”

Citing bailout, union wants to organize bank workers
“”We believe there is special responsibility for companies who receive taxpayer dollars to ensure their workers have a voice on the job,“ SEIU’s Lynda Tran said.”

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News Brief - November 24

Monday, November 24, 2008 | News

Paid, Unpaid Leave

Navy Gives New Dads 10 Days Paid Leave
“One of the biggest reasons for the change is to keep the Navy competitive in recruiting and retaining talented people.”

Real estate group backs sick leave law challenge
One of the biggest reasons for the backing is to keep the Milwaukee metro area free of talented people.

What do we want? Paid maternity leave. Now. (AU)
“It is to be hoped that one day Australian women will be amazed that paid maternity leave was once contentious and considered too expensive for the country to afford despite the wealth of evidence that it is what women want and what families and businesses need.”

Poverty, Wages

High school degree part of poverty equation
Unfortunately, poverty is not part of the policy solution equation.

Hard times hardest on elderly poor
“Lopez lives in her tiny apartment, where Pat Robertson blares on the television, and depends on her children to bring her tacos at the end of the month, when her food stamps have run out. She can’t read, so she can’t understand the forms the government sends her.”
You might as well say “Hard times hardest on unmarried elderly without a sense of individual responsibility.” See where that statement gets you.

Everyone pays the province’s $38 billion cost (Canada)
“We all pay in increased costs for health care, crime and social assistance; in the loss of tax revenue that accompanies low earnings; and in the intergenerational cycle of poor children growing up to be poor adults, [the report] says.”
We all benefit when no one is left behind.

How not to help the poor
“In too many cases, parents pass on these poor values and choices to their children. Poverty then becomes generational, a way of life.  Trying to break the cycle of chronic poverty when Fedzilla does whatever it can to sustain it is analogous to trying to melt an iceberg with a match.”
Ted Nugent fends off Fedzilla with his guitar. We should all listen to him. He also has a gun.

Tulsa billionaire believes early childhood education stops poverty
“”I have felt all of my life that we all got where we are by dumb luck, that we have a moral obligation to share our random advantage with those who didn’t win the ovarian lottery and that the purest form of charity is one which intervenes in the cycle of poverty at the earliest possible stage, through nutrition, health care and housing. Equal opportunity is really the social contract of life,“ he said.”
Unfortunately, “stopping poverty” stops policy.

Report Sees Positives in Recession Fallout
“We are moving more to a service-based economy,” Mr. Tirinzonie said, “which might have slightly lower paying jobs, but a good many still require post-secondary education.”
An economy built on low-wage jobs that still require a college degree? Brilliant.


News Brief - November 20

Thursday, November 20, 2008 | News

Paid Leave

Lawmakers push to expand paid leave

“But employers object to the proposal’s rigid, one-size-fits-all approach; it’s not needed, employers groups say, because 74 percent of employers already provide paid sick days…”

Because one-size-fits-74% ain’t bad…right? It’s not like we’re all in this together or anything…

Commerce association to challenge sick-day ordinance
“The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Board of Directors voted unanimously Monday to proceed with a legal challenge to the paid-sick-day ordinance that voters overwhelmingly approved Nov. 4.”

Later, the MMAC kicked a puppy.

Bush Changes to Employee Leave among First Midnight Rules

“The rule…will make it more difficult for employees to use paid leave when taking FMLA leave. Because FMLA leave is unpaid, employees often attempt to use paid leave, such as paid vacation time, to avoid disruptions in their pay.”

Those darn pesky workers, always trying to “avoid disruptions in pay” and “take their kids to the doctor and still afford to buy food for their family”.

Jobs, Mobility

The Tear-Down (Detroit Edition)
“The nation is said to be in need to some bottom-up economic stimulus. And NOW we’re going to tear down what remains of the country’s manufacturing core? We’re going to say good-bye to companies that collectively (and again, because of union bargaining power) provide health coverage for two million people (their direct employees, dependents, retirees, and supplier employees)??”

No ironic comment needed here!

Upward Mobility is So 1970s

“Between 1978 and 2005, CEO pay increased from 35 times to nearly 262 times the average worker’s pay,” the study finds. That’s because CEOs are making all of the important decisions that keep workers employed and our economy afloat…


Poverty Here at Home: Part I
“But, again and again, when we talked about children in poverty nobody just talks about numbers or salaries. The conversation every time leads to talking about the structure of family.”

That sounds like a very productive conversation.

Langston University Helps Tackle Poverty in Tulsa

“Poverty in Oklahoma is substantial and it is real…It is also too expensive to be ignored.” 

The poverty banner is also expensive: it will cost you your policy goals. Public will can’t be bought with Poverty Pennies.

News Brief - November 17

Monday, November 17, 2008 | News


Public policy can’t fix poverty
Perhaps more accurately, “Poverty policy can’t fix poverty.”

“But Brian Riedl, senior federal budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the automatic stabilizing effects of these programs remained strong. ”Antipoverty spending is at its highest level in American history,“ he said.”

Policies can look prohibitively expensive when packaged under the ever-growing poverty banner.

Activists inspired to fight poverty
“Murray and other local residents who attended the summit pointed to education, access to sustainable housing and transportation as key issues in the battle against poverty.”

The summit could have done better to inspire activists to fight FOR education, access to sustainable housing and transportation.

King III: US must address poverty
“If we will be a great nation,” he said, in an oratory reminiscent of his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “let us not be satisfied until we have education, decent jobs, a living wage, adequate and affordable health care and decent housing.”

King III is apparently unaware that these issues and measures are not included in the US definition of poverty.

Summit starts long road to combat poverty
“There’s a reason poor people are often described as ”mired in poverty.“ To be ”mired“ is to be stuck in something that’s hard to get out of, and that’s sure true of poverty.”

Kinda like how policy solutions are mired in a sympathy frame?

Where Obama Can Be Bold
I bet I can guess where Obama will lose if he is bold. (I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “noverty”.)

Working poor still fall short
“The report calls for stronger policies for working families at both the state and federal level.”

Look for sister article next week, “Stronger ‘poor’ policies still fall short.”

Wages, Dreams, Preparedness

A Living Law?
“Why should employees have to fill out complaints or file lawsuits to get the city to obey a city law?”

How else is The Man supposed to keep low-wage workers down?

Can more spending revive the American Dream?
“Traditionally, Americans have had extraordinarily optimistic views of the economic prospects for themselves and their children. This may be one reason they have tolerated in the past 30 years a major redistribution of income in the nation to the top 1 or 2 percent of its citizens from those with lower incomes.”

As L. Frank Baum wrote, ‘Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.’ That is, unless they don’t.

Retraining program gets $450K
“Developing our workforce to be better prepared for jobs today and tomorrow is one our community’s highest priorities,” said Kathryn Merchant, Greater Cincinnati Foundation president.“

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