Reframing the Poverty Debate

Establishing a goal to cut poverty in half (as many advocates have called for in the last year) is a flawed strategy for building public will and political support for our policy solutions.

Is this the way to cut poverty?

Establishing a goal to cut poverty won't work because:

  1. In the United States, we define official poverty using an outdated formula (from the 1950s) designed to measure only income deprivation (can you buy enough food?). As a result, a goal to “halve poverty” is both limited and limiting.
  2. Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of policy solutions. While advocates point to opinion surveys showing public support for “helping the needy,” such arguments overlook the limitations of opinion polling. If public support were indeed this strong, Congress would have acted accordingly long ago.
  3. By defining the problem as poverty, we open the door to a losing debate with opponents over the definition of poverty and whether our policy solutions address the "true" causes of poverty. Remember the national debate over welfare? Why would we want to create another high profile conversation about whether the cause of the problem is bad jobs and the labor market or poor personal choices? That's what we'll get if we assert that our goal is reducing poverty.

Our goal is different.

We want to live in a place where all have the opportunity and resources necessary to contribute and participate fully in our economy and democracy. We all fare better when no one falls too far behind and the economy works for everyone.

A policy framework focused on poverty divides society into "us" and "them", violating the big idea that we are all in this together. Rather than arguing to fix the economy for a distinct class — the poor — our goal should be an economy that works for all of us.

The Mobility Agenda promotes a conversation about a goal that is more consistent with widely supported policy proposals, which tend to go way beyond income deprivation. On this page, you will find commentary and resources to support a new debate: one that focuses on an inclusive economy.


January 5, 2009

'Reducing poverty' is the wrong goal

LONG before the onset of the current economic slide, some Washington insiders called on government to set a goal of reducing poverty. While recognizing the good intentions, we must acknowledge what the recent election proves: Changes in our nation in the years since citizens heard a similar plea – more than 40 years ago – require a new vision for the economy.

Any effort to revive a policy and political focus targeted specifically on the poor will demand significant energy and resources and, unfortunately, can’t yield the desired policy results.

Instead, we should adopt goals that establish what Robert F. Kennedy called our desired “bond of common fate” in a new national framework for advancing economic and social policy.

We’ve already reached everyone persuadable by describing policy proposals as “anti-poverty” initiatives. Yet that level of support still hasn’t been enough to overcome the opponents.

While many people will say they want government to do something about poverty, it isn’t a high priority. In October, when the Gallup Poll asked voters to name “the most important problem facing the country,” only 1 percent named poverty, hunger or homelessness. (The percentage has actually declined from 2 percent since early 2008.)

This means policymakers don’t have the political space they need to take on opponents. Talking about poverty more loudly and more often won’t change this fact. Indeed, continuing to use the poverty banner will lead to failure. There are a few reasons for this:

* The federal definition of poverty (based strictly on income, it’s currently about $21,000 for a family of four) is out of date and flawed, allowing opponents to limit policy solutions to a narrow and very low-income group.

* Widespread impressions of poverty’s causes (irresponsible and immoral behavior) and remedies (responsible personal behavior) hinder adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.

* Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in a legislative debate.

For example, critics have responded to Sen. Obama’s concession to John Edwards late in the primary season that Democrats adopt a goal to halve poverty in 10 years. In November, in an interview about Obama’s policy proposals, Bill Cunningham, ranked by Talkers Magazine as one of the 100 most important talk radio hosts in the U.S., said:

“You know, people are poor in America . . . 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.”

See the problem?

It would be a much better use of the good will and support generally accorded a new president to focus on setting a higher standard for our nation.

A better goal would go well beyond income deprivation, or even a standard that assesses what is necessary to “make ends meet.” Our real goals are higher than this, and our policy proposals already reflect a desire to do more.

Unless we want to narrow the list of solutions at the outset, the new president should focus instead on how to establish goals that measure our progress toward an inclusive economy that works for all of us.

Other nations have taken up this effort. Every European Union member has a plan for an inclusive society, a multidimensional concept that incorporates not only notions of adequate income (using a relative measure designed to assess whether the gap is getting too big for a strong nation), but also neighborhood quality, access to the arts, education, health care, participation in civic events, housing, pensions and other factors.

IT WILL take hard work and high-level attention to develop a framework for this concept in the U.S. We need consensus on targets to measure progress and assess the effectiveness of new initiatives.

Establishing a new wide effort to develop and focus on such goals is worthy of presidential attention and Cabinet status.

In contrast, renewed attention to the limited target of income poverty is not. Even 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


September 26, 2008

Notes on "Presidential Politics and Poverty" at The Urban Institute
or, "The Mobility Agenda gets a shout out"
by Research Associate Jonny Finity

On Tuesday, EJ Dionne – distinguished Washington Post journalist, renowned political analyst, and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow – addressed a crowd for the 2008 Paul Offner Lecture at The Urban Institute on "Presidential Politics and Poverty."
Mr. Dionne talked at length about the role government plays – and should play – in supporting "the least among us." He suggested that many government programs in the last several decades have seen great success: Medicare, Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, the Job Corps, the GI Bill, student loans, and – despite its problems – Medicaid.
In spite of these successes, Mr. Dionne remarked, the policy debate over poverty issues is far from over, particularly when it comes to public perception. He shared some insights citing The Mobility Agenda's own Margy Waller, on a different kind of goal (though one that works toward shared objectives) that everyone can support:

We want to live in a place where all have the opportunity and resources necessary to contribute and participate fully in our economy and democracy. We all fare better when no one is left to fall too far behind and the economy works for everyone. Right now our communities have become too dependent on corporations that don't pay well and don't provide benefits like health care or paid sick days. As a result, there are over 40 million jobs (1 in 3 in our economy!) that pay under about $11 an hour. If we want a strong economy for all, we have to address job quality too. If we want people to participate in our civic life - volunteering in schools and on ball fields - then we need to make sure that everyone has what they need to do that. Because whenever too many fall too far behind the rest, our whole society is diminished.

These comments couldn't be timelier, as the economic crisis unfolds and the media and advocates nationwide call for a redefinition of "poverty." It is true that the current definition of poverty is flawed and outdated. But the fact remains, that to define poverty is to divide society. It creates a chasm between "us" and "them", and creates a culture of sympathy and – equally as often – blame. To address the problems attributed to poverty, we need to focus on the bigger picture: a picture in which all of use are included.

Click here to listen to EJ Dionne's remarks.


The Mobility Agenda's Margy Waller was a featured speaker at International Association of Machinists' 37th Grand Lodge Convention in Orlando – a gathering of 2,500 members of the union.
September 10, 2008

As part of a week-long convention dedicated to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech, Margy spoke to the attendees about defining and addressing "freedom from want" in the 21st century.

The panel discussion focusing on the economy and labor market included Jared Bernstein from the Economic Policy Institute, Sheldon Danziger from the University of Michigan, and Dave Brady from Duke University.

Quoting from FDRs speech, Margy noted that his definition of "freedom from want" was that it "means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world."

The panelists discussed the inadequacy of the current official measure of poverty, barriers presented by public understanding of the causes of poverty, and policy proposals designed to strengthen the labor market. Margy's presentation highlighted work of The Mobility Agenda to energize a new public conversation designed to create public will and political space for policies that ensure everyone can be a full participant in our economy and democracy.

Click here to see Margy's powerpoint presentation.

Anti-Poverty Policy In the News:
Recent Media Coverage and Commentary
Compiled by The Mobility Agenda Staff

Some stakeholders promote coverage of poverty issues and policy, and recommend adopting a goal to cut poverty in half. We note that historically, when politicians focus on the poor and/or media coverage increases, public opinion opposing funding for anti-poverty programs goes up. At the same time, media coverage often reinforces problematic frames on causes of poverty and creates opportunities for opponents to promote these frames.

We provide these recent examples:

“A New Strategy Against Poverty” commentary by Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich answers Barack Obama's call for an honest discussion about poverty.

May 15, 2008: Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

We need bold, courageous solutions that dare to be politically incorrect. So how do we endure and prevail? There are seven areas that I will describe briefly… First, it is important to recognize that we have an absolute, verifiable model of minimizing crime… Second, I believe that adolescence is a failed, nineteenth-century idea… Now we have invented a middle zone, where kids are bored, trapped in mindless bureaucracies, critiqued routinely, and end up hanging out, watching junk television, doing drugs, and having sex... Sixth, we cannot address poverty in American without fundamentally questioning the current social contract with Native Americans… Native Americans are 100 times more likely to have a baby damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome than Asian Americans. And yet, that's not a medical problem. That's a cultural problem… I have given you a large and sweeping overview. I truly hope that is the beginning of a continuing dialogue in which we are not afraid to address the real reasons people in America are poor and in trouble.

For more examples, click here.

More on Clinton's "Poor" Plan
by Margy Waller
March 3, 2008

On the eve of “(Possibly) Decisive Tuesday”, whether a campaign sets a poverty goal probably doesn’t matter. Yet, it’s helpful (for our work) to continue this dialogue about whether it was a good plan for Senator Clinton to announce her goal to cut poverty at all. Is it a good strategy? Shawn suggests that Senator Clinton needed to have a plan in the primary and cites a Huffington Post commentary written by a former Edwards campaign staffer as evidence. A few reactions:

  • Voters are not clamoring for this - even in the primary, and even in the hard hit areas of southeastern Ohio, where poverty rates are relatively high. In February, the Gallup Poll asked voters about "the most important problem facing the country" and just 2 percent named poverty/hunger/homelessness.
    The dynamic might (possibly!) be different if the primary had come down to a race between Clinton and Edwards. In that case, the target for cutting poverty might have been used by Edwards to illustrate a difference between the candidates. But, that isn’t where we ended up. Moreover, in that scenario, the campaign would likely have undermined the party and the policy goals…given what we know about opposition to the policies and voter preferences.
  • We know that some people (democrats and low-income voters) are persuaded by the sympathy frame (the one that the word “poverty” calls up for voters) to support a limited set of policies. But, this language actually decreases support for a living wage. Moreover, we also know that an economic lens moves these same voters and others to support more of our policy goals!
    So, if there is no true demand for a goal to cut poverty and it won’t help add new voters, why not use an economic case to promote the same larger policy agenda without a damaging poverty headline? (In fact, the Clinton campaign appears to have included most of the same policy in an earlier announcement about her economic plans.)
  • Why does this matter at all? Maybe it doesn’t. But, I’m afraid it could. And I’d prefer a candidate who is thinking beyond the next primary and stays focused on the goal of building political space and public will for the policy goals. Or at the very least, one who doesn’t take the risk of underming the policy in order to win.
    Some time ago, Rachel Gragg (one of inclusion’s co-founders) co-authored an article outlining a topic we’ve all discussed at length: the advantages of “winning by losing well.” The poverty debate provides a classic example of this imperative not to sacrifice our larger policy goals for the sake of an incremental or different advance, particularly when that advance actually undermines the shared agenda for the long term. By advancing a plan to set a target for cutting poverty, Senator Clinton sets up a problematic future, and one that threatens to undermine the policy goals. Let’s assume (for the sake of this posting) that Senator Clinton were to win the nomination. She could then be forced to campaign on her poverty goal in the general election. This would allow opponents to raise the arguments outlined by the Heritage Foundation in response to her announcement last week. And if she ended up in the White House, we can expect that some advocates would demand that she make good on her plan to call for a target to cut poverty. And that would likely fail, as we’ve outlined before. In the process – a lot of the policy we need to implement could be undermined by the debate over whether these policies are the ones our government should adopt to “cut poverty”.

No other leading candidate remaining the race has adopted a goal to cut poverty. I hope it stays that way.

Hillary Clinton's "Poor" Plan

by Margy Waller
February 29, 2008

Senator Clinton announced her plan to cut poverty just days before the Ohio primary. Why? Really, why does she think this will help her win – or help build public will for the policies she promotes: like a higher minimum wage, pre-K, improving child support collection, etc? Her plan incorporates lots of ideas we’ve identified and include on our list of new ideas for good jobs: democratic workplaces, health care, paid family leave, etc. She also has a laundry list of additional good ideas that support economic and social mobility: expanding green jobs, more strategies for worker advancement, etc. It’s so…. not cool…. that she put it all these great ideas under the poverty headline! Using the poverty banner means it is unlikely that this plan will generate support. While lots of people want to do something about poverty—it’s not a high priority for voters. I’ve written about this before.

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one we like (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one we don’t (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?
In fact, she gave the Heritage Foundation an opening:
Robert Rector, senior research fellow on welfare and family issues at the Heritage Foundation, says Clinton refuses to even acknowledge the two primary causes of child poverty -- out-of-wedlock births, and parents living on welfare instead of working. "What she wants to do is combat poverty by putting the responsibility on the U.S. taxpayer, who already spends about $450 billion a year fighting poverty," says Rector, "while [at the same time] specifically avoiding the issue of changing the behaviors that are the cause of poverty.”

See the problem? We present these findings, and more, in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”.

Responding to Paul Krugman and A New Lens for Policy
By Margy Waller
February 18, 2008

Paul Krugman takes on poverty in his column. He’s highlighting new research about the impact of childhood poverty on “the American Dream”. Unfortunately, while he had strong opinions about the impact of campaign promises on legislative debates over health care after the election, he doesn’t acknowledge what we know about public reaction to use of the language of poverty. We’ve said it before:

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one we like (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one we don’t (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?
We present these findings in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”. We use this powerpoint several times a month (at least) for talks around the country with all kinds of stakeholders – academics, advocates, policymakers, elected officials, students, media, organizers, service providers, etc. I learn with the audience too. A few weeks ago, I met with a class of NYU law students and one of them suggested some changes in the visual presentation that I promptly adopted. The week before that, I met with community leaders from across the state of North Carolina. They discussed better ways to present information to decision makers based on the research I’d presented. They decided to illustrate systemic solutions like universal access to health care, retirement options for those without adequate employer-based options, and guaranteed paid sick days. These are three of the ideas identified in our scan on better jobs. It was thrilling to hear that local leaders believe the ideas from our research also provide the best economic narratives as alternatives to the traditional sympathy storyline. View “A New Lens on Policy”.



Resources and Publications

A New Lens on Policy
October, 2008
by Margy Waller

Communicating About Poverty and Low-Wage Work: A New Agenda
October, 2007
by Matthew C. Nisbet, a report for The Mobility Agenda

Executive Summary: Communicating About Poverty and Low-Wage Work: A New Agenda
October, 2007
by Matthew C. Nisbet, a report for The Mobility Agenda

Comments on the Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty Report
July, 2007
by Margy Waller, in the Poverty & Race Research Action Council's July/August 2007 Newsletter

"A review of The Center for American Progress’ Task Force on Poverty report begins—and ends—with the report’s title - From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half."

Social Inclusion for the United States
April, 2007
by Heather Boushey, Natalie Bronosky, Shawn Fremstad, Rachel Gragg, and Margy Waller

Understanding Low-Wage Work in the United States
March, 2007
by Heather Boushey, Shawn Fremstad, Rachel Gragg, and Margy Waller

Unions and Upward Mobility for Low-Wage Workers
August, 2007
by John Schmitt, Margy Waller, Shawn Fremstad, and Ben Zipperer


Additional Resources and Links

A New Lens On Policy: A collaboration between The Mobility Agenda and the Minnesota Community Action Partnership 
Part of our ongoing effort to reframe the poverty debate for better policy results. 

Office for Social Inclusion - Ireland
An overview of Ireland's concept of social inclusion and the indicators they use to measure it.

Communications and Public Opinion Research

You Can Get There From Here...
by Joseph Grady and Axel Aubrun

An Occasional Paper Series from The Social Equity and Opportunity Forum of The College of Urban and Public Affairs, Portland State University


Together for Success: Communicating Low-Wage Work as Economy, not Poverty

by Meg Bostrom for the Ford Foundation 

Achieving the American Dream: A Meta-Analysis of Public Opinion Concerning Poverty, Upward Mobility, and Related Issues

by Meg Bostrom

Frameworks Institute, Framing Public Issues

Frameworks Institute, E-Zine on Child Poverty

How to Talk about Investing in Young Children
Voices for American Children/Frameworks Intitute

Framing Katrina
by George Lakoff and John Halpin

Reports from the "How to Talk About Government" Project
Demos and the Framework Institute

Contemporary Public Opinion: Poverty and Welfare
by Joe Soss with Erin O'Brien

Tuning Up Our Yin-Yang
by Meizhu Lei

A Public Transformed? Welfare Reform as Policy Feedback
by Joe Soss and Sanford F. Schram

Words that Work: Messaging for Economic Justice
The SPIN Project

Beyond Red vs. Blue: Political Typologies
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

The Economy Project
Greenberg Research

How Soon We Forget
by Mark Lloyd (Center For American Progress)

Speaking of Values: The Framing of American Politics
by Shanto Iyengar

The Public Contemplates the Problem of Persistent Poverty
Georgia Peach State Poll


Books and Articles

One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All
by Mark Robert Rank

The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of Social Policy
by Theda Skocpol

Sustainable Social Policy: Fighting Poverty without Poverty Programs
by Theda Skocpol, American Prospect

Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy
by Martin Gilens

Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History
by Alice O'Connor