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