For much more about the evidence on changing narratives, see our website.
The Nation magazine recently praised efforts by the Congressional Progressive Caucus,
led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D- CA), to introduce a plan to cut
poverty. The detailed package of policy proposals, “The Anti-Poverty
and Opportunity Initiative,” calls for:
$73 billion in FY 2009, increasing to $129 billion in FY 2018, to fund
a comprehensive strategy to cut poverty in half in a decade, including:
expanding child care and increasing Head Start funding; making the
Child Tax Credit fully refundable and expanding the Earned Income Tax
Credit for larger families; increasing funding for Food Stamps
programs; increasing housing vouchers by 200,000 annually; lifting
restrictions on TANF, Food Stamps, SSI and Medicaid for documented
immigrant families; fully funding block grants to states with broad
anti-poverty strategies and distributing targeted grants to states for
families where a parent or child has a disability; increasing funding
for Indian Health Services, education, housing and infrastructure,
natural resources management, and other areas impacting Native American
poverty; and reversing the 20 percent cut in child support enforcement.
initiative incorporates many policy ideas community organizations and
other stakeholders have been wishing that Congress and the
administration would adopt – for many years now. Individual lists might
differ a bit from Congresswoman Lee’s, but any Congressional staffer
from a progressive office already has a list like this memorized.
So why aren’t these proposals the law of the land?
probably because supporters have reached everyone persuadable by
talking about the proposals as “anti-poverty” initiatives for forty
years. And all that support still isn’t enough to overcome the
opponents of legislation like this. While many people want to do
something about poverty—it’s not a high priority for voters. In
February, the Gallup Poll asked voters about “the most important
problem facing the country” and just 2 percent named
That means friendly policymakers don’t have the political space they need to take on opponents.
continuing to use the poverty banner means it is unlikely that this
plan will generate adequate support in the future. There are a few
reasons for this:
* The U.S. definition of poverty is out of
date and flawed, allowing opponents to use it to limit policy solutions
to a narrow very low-income group.
* Public understanding of the
causes of (irresponsible and immoral behavior) and remedies
(responsible personal behavior) 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.
fact, when Senator Clinton announced her support for a plan to adopt a
goal to cut child poverty in late February, the conservative think tank
Heritage Foundation took the opening to criticize and offer their
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?
poverty debate provides a classic example of the 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, elected officials and candidates set up a
problematic future, and one that threatens to undermine the policy
imagine the likely scenario to come. Whether or not a candidate who has
promised to set a goal to cut poverty wins the White House, we can
expect continued efforts by some advocacy groups and members of
Congress to push for the goal and the policy to match.
mainstream media will portray the likely legislative options as two
competing proposals: one we like (a comprehensive approach to
addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one we don’t (solve
poverty with marriage and harder work).
opponents are able to push these concepts with success because they are
consistent with a broad public understanding of the causes of poverty,
and a widely held belief that government programs cannot really address
the issue of poverty or inequality. We already lost this same fight in
battles over welfare. Why would we want to engage in it again?
don’t need to re-fight that battle. We know that some people (democrats
and low-income voters) are persuaded by a sympathy lens on the issue
(the one that the word “poverty” calls up for many people in this
country) to support a limited set of policies. Unfortunately, this
language actually decreases support for progressive policies like a
we also know that using an economic narrative moves these same voters
and others (working-class, non college-educated men, older men,
Republican voters, union households, and older voters without a college
education) to support more of our policy goals.
if there is no true demand for a goal to cut poverty and it won’t help
add new support, it would be much smarter strategically to use an
economic case to promote the same larger policy agenda without the
damaging poverty headline. (You’ll find much more information about the
evidence on the impact of using different narratives for policy results
on our website.
fact, the Progressive Caucus members have proposals that would address
poverty, social and economic mobility, and inequality that they’ve put
under an economy title, the “Rebuild and Reinvest in America
Initiative.” They should focus on this legislation and incorporate the
“anti-poverty” agenda into that legislation.
who wants anti-poverty policy to be high on the agenda after the
upcoming election should stop talking about goals to cut poverty and
instead talk about an economy that will work for everyone. Changing the
way we start the conversation with others about this issue doesn’t mean
we don’t care about the poor anymore or that our policy goals have to
change at all. It’s just an acknowledgment that if we want to win, we
have to change the narrative to one that works for us, and for more of
the public too.