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.

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