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. 



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Note to Mayor Bloomberg - Offer Paid Sick Days Instead

Sunday, April 4, 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.

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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.



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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.


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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.

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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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News Brief - November 7

Friday, November 7, 2008 | News


Survey focuses on rural poverty

“People who are low-income or living in poverty are clearly disadvantaged with numerous factors impacting their health and access to health care.”

Then let’s start talking about helping everyone overcome those factors. 
Taxing citizens into poverty
“But it is clear something needs to be done to prevent poor Alabamians from falling further behind.”
You mean like dropping the poverty frame?

What Obama’s Next Steps Should Be…
“Eliminating poverty sets the bar too low and, as a national goal, it simply will not work to achieve our shared hopes for a strong nation.”



The economics of single motherhood
“If we have that many children born to single mothers, the standard of living is low not just for them but for all of us,” said Walley. “The high number of single mothers fundamentally changes the way our economy works.”

Mass. a model of healthcare reform, hurdles
“Some healthcare analysts and leaders in the business and insurance industries say Massachusetts‘ experience offers tangible proof that overhauling a massive system is possible.“


Bloomington plans to explore living wage
”By a decisive 65 to 35 percent margin in an advisory referendum, they want a “living wage” of about $9.81 an hour paid to city workers who aren’t making that much.“

Killer living wages
Run for your lives!
”What’s the opposite of a living wage? Presumably a death wage.“

Paid Leave, Time Off

Milwaukee Voters Approve Paid Sick Leave Referendum
”The referendum brought by a coalition of union and community groups gives full-time workers between five and nine sick days a year, depending on the size of their employer.“

Paid sick leave referendum wins big
”We knew this was an issue that resonated with people in the city who understand it’s so important for families to have the ability to work and care for their families,“ she said. ”We believe business will find this will be good for them too because the costs of retraining and rehiring will be offset.“

Business Owners Unhappy About Paid Sick Leave
…apparently forgetting that they are part of the most entrepreneurial, innovative workforce in the world.

Election Day in US should be a holiday
”Low turnout doesn’t occur evenly across all demographics. People with higher income, occupational standing and education, for example, are more likely to vote. They’re more likely to have the time, leisure and resources to vote.“

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Notes on Media Coverage of Poverty

Friday, October 31, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

At The Mobility Agenda, we track media coverage of poverty proposals. We thought you would be interested in these new links to articles representing a classic example of what happens when poverty is invoked to support policy proposals.

This Manhattan Institute article, Getting Poverty Wrong, and the media followup is a good reminder that we will not achieve the policy results we seek (note the list of Obama proposals attacked in the article) with a conversation that makes people think about poverty.

When we use this frame, we inevitably get a response from our opponents that goes straight to the place Bill Cunningham does in this interview: “…they’re poor because they lack values, morals, and ethics.” At another spot in the interview he argues that “…unlike many countries in the world, Steve, we have fat poor people. We don’t have skinny poor people. Ours are fat and flatulent.”


“CUNNINGHAM: Steve Malanga — the article is ”Obama’s counterproductive war on poverty.“ The war on poverty was declared in the 1960s. It was lost in the 1970s. The funding continued for poverty. You know, people are poor in America, Steve, not because they lack money; they’re poor because they lack values, morals, and ethics. And if government can’t teach and instill that, we’re wasting our time simply giving poor people money.”

For much more, including suggestions for alternative approaches  – check out our page on reframing poverty:


Click here for another interview online. In this one, Malanga implicity attacks attacks Community Action Agencies and other nonprofits, making an all too familiar “poverty pimps” argument.

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News Brief - October 31

Friday, October 31, 2008 | News

Paid Sick Leave

Employers fear paid sick leave will raise their costs
“It’s going to be a killer,” Maliszewski said of the proposal. “Once you start taking away the creativity of small business by forcing them to do certain things, you take away their ability to compete.”
You know what else is a killer? Disease. Especially when workers can’t afford to take time off to treat it.

Wages, Economy

Time to make Vancouver a living wage city
“And if all this sounds expensive, consider this. Better pay translates directly into a healthier local economy. Low-income families spend almost all their money close to home. And businesses that have adopted the living wage report higher productivity and reduced turnover.”
Some things cost more because they are high quality items.

Battlers for a living wage demonized

A new type of capitalism
“The top 1 percent of earners in the United States gained $600 billion annually in income while the bottom 80 percent lost that same $600 billion from 1979 to 2008.”
(…not to mention the $700 billion wealth transfer that is taking place in ‘08.)

The Futility of Class Warfare  

“This pervasive belief in the American Dream — the notion that everyone has a shot at the brass ring — is the most formidable constraint on the effectiveness of the class-warfare card.”

Poverty, Crime

Candidates walk tight line on poverty
“…for a Democrat to talk too much about poverty sounds like talking about welfare – which is not popular with the middle class voters that he’s [Obama] trying to court.”
Poverty talk is divisive and unpopular. Why are we still trying to walk that line?

People are poor in America because they lack values, morals, and ethics
How can you really have a rational discussion when this is the propaganda used against you?

Many States Tax Working-Poor Families Deeper into Poverty

Federal report analyzes crime in 28 cities
“A new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that unemployment and low wages do not have a significant effect on crime - at least in the short term.”

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