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The New Poverty Wars
Debating the Frame(s)

Author: Nancy K. Cauthen
Publication Date: April 2007

The mini-firestorm created over the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) call to set a national poverty reduction target is the latest chapter in the ongoing debate about how to frame a policy agenda to reduce poverty and inequality and to increase opportunity and mobility. Last week, CAP released a major task force report arguing for a national effort to cut poverty in half over the next decade. Another group weighed in arguing that an anti-poverty frame is not the right approach, calling for the United States to adopt the European frame of “social inclusion.” This debate—or rather, some version of it—is a critical one for the field and one we should have sooner rather than later.

In this piece, I argue the following:

  • Poverty is indeed a loaded frame, but we need to have a conversation about how to talk about poverty, not to excise it from the discussion.
  • Social inclusion is a great concept, but it’s not the right one for the U.S.
  • There is value in establishing a national poverty reduction target.
  • It would be unconscionable to abandon the plight of the most vulnerable for the sake of promoting a politically saleable frame.

The Rags and Riches of the Poverty Frame

CAP’s John Halpin rightly points out:

Poverty reduction is an essential vision and organizing tool for groups ranging from Call to Renewal and Catholic Charities in the faith community, to ACORN and the AFL-CIO on the community activist and labor side, to Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Antonio Villaraigosa and presidential candidate John Edwards in the political world.

Given the emergence of a range of new anti-poverty initiatives over the last couple of years, it seems an inopportune time to abandon an anti-poverty frame. At the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), we’re hearing from more and more groups who are embarking on new anti-poverty initiatives—from faith-based groups with renewed energy to pursue social justice concerns, to educators who want to bring poverty to the forefront of conversations about the achievement gap, to states and localities looking for advice about how to fight child poverty.

Do we really want to discourage this kind of energy? I don’t think so. We can certainly provide these groups with information about framing and sensitize them to the pitfalls of using only a poverty frame. But those of us who travel around the country and talk to folks in local communities know they’re not particularly interested in having a bunch of policy wonks from DC (or New York) tell them what to do. For some, it’s not a choice—they want to reduce poverty, often with a focus on children—so let’s help them reduce poverty!

None of this changes the undeniable fact that a poverty frame carries a lot of heavy baggage. As the old saying goes, “programs for poor people are poor programs.” Further, conservatives are quite skilled at linking poverty to welfare and all the negative racialized imagery that conjures up. It’s okay to feel sorry for poor people, but it’s not okay to spend taxpayer dollars on them unless they are perceived as blameless, which they aren’t unless they’re old or disabled. Even poor children evoke ambivalence—sure, they’re not to blame, but their parents are, and it’s not the government’s responsibility to bail them out.

That said, for those committed to an anti-poverty frame—and we should not underestimate their numbers—there are ways to focus the policy conversation on jobs, wages, benefits, early care and learning, etc. When we at NCCP are asked to speak specifically about child poverty reduction, we always make the point that children are poor because their parents are poor, providing the opening for a conversation about economic security, conflicts between work and family, the need for affordable health insurance and child care—that is, issues with widespread resonance.

Will a poverty frame get us where we want to be? No, not all by itself. Will a policy agenda focused on poverty reduction make it more difficult to achieve our broader goals? I doubt it, as long as we continue our focus on low-wage jobs and simultaneously address middle class concerns.

What About “Social Inclusion?”

For years, a growing number of progressives have been calling for the application of the European concept of “social inclusion” to the U.S. Although I understand the appeal of the concept, I fear the term would be DOA.

The authors of Social Inclusion for the United States write:

Instead of designing initiatives and establishing national goals based on what we oppose, we should decide what we want.

We want initiatives and a national goal that support policies that cut across issue silos and lead to results—simultaneously and comprehensively—like greater income equality, better jobs, improved skills, health care for all, and better quality housing. Social inclusion is a multifaceted approach that enables us to do this.

There is clearly widespread support among progressives for an agenda that moves beyond income poverty and focuses attention on these broader issues. But I’m skeptical that a “social inclusion” frame will facilitate the effort.

Too many Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to all things European. Conservatives would have a field day—they would rapidly try to spin social inclusion as just one more tax-and-spend-big-government-socialist-European-like-welfare-state-thing. I’m reminded of the communications research showing that most Americans are not motivated to fight poverty just because we have the highest poverty rate among advanced industrialized countries—we’re different from the rest of the world, remember? For many, the fact that social inclusion is the right concept for Europe—even the U.K.—would automatically make it suspect for the U.S.

Second, I don’t see the middle class in this country identifying with the concept of social inclusion. How many middle-class people see themselves as “socially excluded?” Unless we’re talking about middle school, I doubt this frame would have widespread resonance.

Finally, the concept of social inclusion is somewhat of a blank slate in the U.S. As CLASP’s Jodie Levin-Epstein writes: “Right now it is reasonable to assume that Americans, if asked the definition of ‘social inclusion’ might respond—social what? Or ask what inclusion?” That kind of open-endedness is risky when there is no consensus about the problem, let alone solutions.

Social inclusion would so easily be co-opted by the right—and not just because of its European origins. The right is quite facile at taking successful progressive slogans and ideas and subverting them. Those of us of a certain age remember an ad campaign that came out at the height of the feminist movement—“you’ve come a long way baby.” Great, years of fighting for gender equality won women the “right” to our own cigarette.

“Leave no child behind” is a more recent example of a progressive concept that has been muddled through misappropriation. A term as vague and undefined as social inclusion would be ripe for exploitation.

The Value of a National Poverty Reduction Goal

The latest debate was inspired in part by CAP’s call for a national goal to reduce poverty by half over a decade, with a response by some social inclusion proponents that such an approach is counterproductive. I don’t understand the argument.

CAP is not calling for a “war on poverty.” The high-profile task force has called for a national commitment to reducing poverty by setting an explicit target. Their policy recommendations significantly depart from those proposed 40 years ago and reflect the realities of a dramatically changed society.

The critics of this approach jump immediately to the problems with the U.S. poverty measure. But why assume that this is the only way to measure progress? Acknowledging the inadequacies of the official poverty measure, Connecticut—the only state that has legislated an explicit child poverty reduction goal—is looking not only at changes in official poverty, they also are measuring changes in the numbers of children falling below 200 percent of the official poverty level. This reflects a major success in the effort to reframe poverty—one that should not be underestimated.

The feds are clearly not going to adopt a new poverty measure anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that researchers can’t create indices of job quality, economic risk, or a whole host of other factors connected to a broad economic security agenda.

I don’t presume to know what would happen if the U.S. were to adopt an official poverty reduction target, but I’d sure like to give it a try. If ever there were a time for such a move, that time would be now, given the renewed energy focused on poverty reduction across the country.

Concluding Thoughts

A concrete, national anti-poverty goal might be a truly important step—why not try it? The CAP report provides many valuable avenues to pursue—let’s take advantage of all the intellectual, social, and technical capital that went into producing it.

At the same time, poverty-reduction efforts will get us only so far and need to be accompanied by a complementary agenda to help the middle class. Let’s not ignore the lessons from the 1980s. Life-long, working-class Democrats voted for Republicans because they felt that the Democratic party cared more about “the poor” than those who were seen as working hard and playing by the rules.

The economic landscape has changed dramatically since then. The proliferation of low-wage jobs has affected high school grads and those with some college education. The constituencies for an anti-poverty agenda as well as an “improving low-wage jobs agenda” are larger than a generation ago. Agendas for “opportunity” and “mobility” overlap but also are different.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. It’s one thing to talk about an agenda—call it what you like—to turn low-wage jobs into better jobs and to increase everyone’s security by addressing the health insurance crisis and to deal with child care costs. There are many ways to frame these issues. But it’s quite a different matter altogether to address persistent poverty. Social inclusion proponents claim their agenda accommodates this, but I have yet to see it translated into a concrete policy agenda.

Just this week, Tony Blair acknowledged that his policies have ignored the U.K.’s most vulnerable.

According to the BBC World Service,

Tony Blair has said he was "misguided" to believe public spending on rundown areas was the only answer to anti-social behaviour and problem families….

Early and tough intervention was needed with a small number of "highly dysfunctional" families who did not respond to investment, said Mr Blair….

But while regeneration was the right thing to do, it had not dealt with the "small and unrepresentative minority" of families creating havoc in some communities, he wrote.

One can certainly quibble with the Prime Minister’s choice of words. But the cold reality is that we can put together a coherent agenda that improves low-wage jobs, deals with health insurance and child care, and a whole host of other things to promote opportunity and mobility and still not significantly change the life chances for the small percentage of families who face persistent, intergenerational poverty.

The CAP report actually attempts to deal with some of the more intractable issues by providing recommendations about disadvantaged youth, former prisoners, and the “high cost of being poor,” that is, the higher prices that families pay for basic services in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

Perhaps what we need is a series of overlapping agendas, where there is room for fighting poverty, promoting opportunity and mobility, and reducing risk and providing security.

Given the reality of U.S. politics, it’s not as if any single agenda is going to be adopted wholesale. So let’s optimize what we have—and resist the temptation to fight among ourselves. The last thing we need to do is self destruct.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NCCP.