This week, the Center for Community Change (CCC) released new research that details the way low-income Americans think and talk about living on the edge. It found that the language being used by policymakers and others to describe them is turning off the very people it is supposed to help.
The project surveyed over 1,700 participants who were identified as living below 200 percent of the poverty line ($11,170 for a single person in 2012).
BillMoyers.com spoke with CCC Executive Director Deepak Bhargava about the findings.
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Karin Kamp: A major finding of your research was that many of the 106 million Americans living at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line ignore political debates about them because they do not identify with the language used by policy makers, the media and others to describe them. What does this tell you about our messaging?
Deepak Bhargava: First, Americans who are struggling do not see themselves in abstract language like “the poor” or “poverty.” This is partly because such language is seen as quite pejorative in America. To be poor is to have failed in pursuit of the American Dream. In too many ways, people who are poor are reviled. The first thing we need to do is stop blaming people and start talking about their real lives.
Second, we need to stop talking about the economy in ways that make it seem like the weather. The economy is a result of the rules we create and the choices we make. The people who are struggling to make ends meet do so because we have built — through intentional choice — an economy that produces inadequate incomes for more than one-third of all Americans. So we need to have a real debate about what to do to build an economy that doesn’t produce such misery.
Karin Kamp: What type of messaging and language is effective in communicating with this group?
Deepak Bhargava: The entry point is connecting with common lived experiences such as not being paid enough to cover the bills, making difficult tradeoffs between basic necessities, inadequate or irregular work hours or not being able to save for retirement or college. Then you have to quickly connect it to shared values. In our research, the most powerful value was family — not only do people identify family as a primary identity but it is the fear or reality of not being able to provide enough for family members that motivates people to get into the debate or take action.
Karin Kamp: More people are now identifying as lower middle-class. How do we need to engage them?
Bhargava: An overall finding of the research, which is – to our knowledge – the most robust scan available of attitudes toward poverty and the only to include responses from people struggling most mightily to make ends meet, is that nouns are failing us in this space and we need to move to verbs. What I mean is, we’ve traditionally catalogued and mobilized people based on shared identity: immigrant, queer, African American, woman. Now, we’re seeing that since “poor” is such a reviled category, people who arguably belong in that designation don’t want to claim that label. So, we need to engage them with the language they’re ready to not just accept but feel empowered to proclaim. And that takes verbs.
Phrases like “struggling to make ends meet,” “living on the brink,” “working for family” describe lived experience and not identity. They also have the added benefit of crossing supposed class lines. At this point in the Great Recession, it’s become the norm to live paycheck to paycheck — whether those paychecks cover a trailer home or a two story colonial in the burbs. Thus, even if people self-identify as “lower middle class,” these tested messages resonate. We know because we’ve looked at the data broken out by household earnings.
Finally, “lower middle class” like its unmodified version middle class is something people gravitate towards in America precisely because it’s basically meaningless. For most of us, it covers so many lifestyles and salary levels, it really conveys very little.
Karin Kamp: Was there anything in the research that surprised you or stood out?
Bhargava: The exciting thing about this research is that the most persuasive language not only engages the base but it’s more progressive than any language I have seen tested this robustly.
I am first and foremost an organizer. For me, it’s truly inspiring to see results that clearly show how we can and should talk about real people’s lives in a way that gives them agency and acknowledges their struggles. It shows that we really can unify groups of people in a way that allows all of us to unite in common effort.
Karin Kamp: How do you hope the findings will change how we approach issues related to poverty?
Bhargava: This research was conducted as part of a new initiative to dismantle the barriers that create and sustain poverty in America. Ultimately, the CCC’s goal is to mobilize these people to create a movement to end poverty.
It’s much too easy to talk about poverty while excluding poor people — whether intentional or not — from conversations that are entirely about the quality and quantity of their days. It’s past time for people who are poor to reclaim the narrative and tell their own stories so that we can then have a real conversation about what actually contributes to economic success or failure in America.
Karin Kamp: What are you aiming to achieve more broadly through this research?
Bhargava: Poverty is structural, created by policies and practices that benefit some people at excruciating cost to others — particularly people of color and women. Our democracy and our economy provide many levers that can change these structures, if only we can summon the national will. The Center for Community Change aims to galvanize a social movement to generate the strategies, leaders and moral urgency to confront poverty.