“If you work hard and play by the rules, you shouldn’t be poor.” You may have heard this from our current president over the last eight years, and likely a similar version from President Clinton; but what is this statement really saying? We pondered this question during our final 2016 steering committee meeting with a senior fellow, Margy Waller from Topos Partnership. Topos Partnership develops framing strategies using cognitive and social sciences utilizing familiar methods of public opinion research and communications. Margy joined us to discuss how to reframe our language when discussing policy, specifically around poverty and low-wage work.
We learned there are three lenses through which we can frame our conversations: sympathy, economy, and community lenses. How are they different?
Let’s begin with the sympathy lens. How often do you hear a story focused on the individual? I know I do almost every day in the local paper or on news radio. For instance, today there was a story about homeless youth in Indianapolis. The story highlighted a few individuals and the services they are receiving in our city, the poor choices they made to get them to the place they are, and ended with the changes they are making for the better. Honestly, I love these stories. It makes me feel good that there are places the youth can go to get relief, and it pulls at the heart strings. But there is an underlying problem with framing the issue like this. It tells the reader that they don’t have to do anything, that everything is working, and if the youth didn’t make bad choices, they wouldn’t need services. It lays out the framework of an “us” and “them” mentality.
In contrast, the community and economy lenses frame issues in a way that says, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” For instance, framing the wage issue should take a big picture look, like “Our nation is relying too heavily on low-wage service sector jobs without insisting that workers get good wages and benefits to help stimulate our economy. The more money in people’s pockets, the more they will spend in their local community." This frame helps the reader think more broadly about how people can change the economy.
So what does the notion “if you work hard and play by the rules" mean then? This concept is misleading the public by saying: if you are poor or in poverty, you aren’t working hard or playing by the rules. But, as we know, to have a “decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning, and play by the rules.”
Topos’ research shows that some people hold two beliefs, simultaneously, about why people are poor: bad jobs and bad decisions. But it is our job to promote our policy goals in a positive frame and in a way that others cannot dismiss them.
We will be working to reinvent how we discuss poverty and low-wealth Hoosiers in the coming year. Together we can change the outlook of our future and make steps toward a more inclusive economy. I hope you will join us.