Why “Can’t Make Ends Meet” Trumps “Poverty”

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Helen Curry, with Independence Bank, reads through the shopping list Monday, April 28, 2014 while searching for foods to fill her shopping cart for the "Stop Senior Hunger" food drive, at the Hometown IGA on East 25th Street. The food will be distributed to low-income seniors on May 7, said GRADD spokesman Woody Maglinger. (AP Photo/Messenger-Inquirer, Jenny Sevcik)

Helen Curry reads through her shopping list while searching for foods for the "Stop Senior Hunger" food drive. The food will be distributed to low-income seniors. (AP Photo/Messenger-Inquirer, Jenny Sevcik)

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.

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.

We need to stop talking about the economy in ways that make it seem like the weather.

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?

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.

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.

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. Before joining billmoyers.com she helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship. She previously produced for NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International.
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  • Anonymous

    Actually, your basic premise–that we “are creatures honed by tens of thousands of years to compete, conquer, rise above…”–is incorrect, and therefore your entire argument fails. In fact, anthropologists and psychologists are trending toward a consensus that what allowed humans to thrive is not their competitiveness, but their cooperative drive.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-probe-human-nature-and-discover-we-are-good-after-all/

    To say that the rules of the economy are constrained by “human nature” is deterministic, and most advanced social scientists would find your argument to be simplistic.

    The problem is not redistribution, but a lack of it. If you look at the countries with high levels of redistribution, both vertically and across the life course, you will find higher standards of living and lower poverty rates (as measured by 1/2 the median income)–primarily the Scandinavian countries, but others are in there, too. In the 1950s, the “golden era” for many, the U.S. experienced enormous prosperity with an extremely high top marginal tax rate. In the 1960s and 1970s, college education was cheap, because it was thought to be in the interests of society to educate as many young adults as possible.

    This came to a screeching halt in the early 1980s as we moved from demand-side economics to supply-side economics. Since then the gap between the very richest and the rest of us has grown, with the result that even those who earn the median income have a difficult time “getting by.”

    At the highest levels of economic power, whether you are Russian or Chinese or American is irrelevant. They cease to have any real national identity. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0025995#s3

    We could change the rules of the game if we had the will to rein in the power of capitalist leaders, but we have handed them the keys of the economy. Until we can find a way to re-assert democracy over plutocracy, we will continue down this road.

  • https://www.linkedin.com/in/chronosproductions Dante D’Anthony

    Beauty.

  • Anonymous

    Ahh, so it’s the Blacks’ fault.

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  • Anonymous

    In order for you to have “success”, you need “failure”. In order for you to have “wealth”, you need have “poverty”. Without one, you can’t, by definition, have the other. That is why YOU CAN’T have Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average. Communism tries to have the ideal “Golden Mean”: no wealth, but no poverty. “To each according to his need, from each according to his ability.” Only trouble is, we now know what happens when you try to implement Communism. The whole world went on a Grand Experiment; half became Communist, half stayed Free Market with the terrible inequalities of Wealth and Poverty. After 50 years and more, the Communist half threw in the towel, having caused terrible poverty for just about all.

  • Anonymous

    You don’t need as many people to work as you used to. Especially when there is automation and computerization and off-shoring. In 1900, the majority of workers were in agriculture. The peak of manufacturing was around the 1960s. Now it’s all service jobs and knowledge jobs, but even those are decreasing… Even as people (especially the poor) keep reproducing (which is EXPENSIVE and keeps poor people poor) and our country keeps bringing in a million LEGAL immigrants each year, and more illegal ones. So of course there are problems.

  • Anonymous

    If everything is free, you subsidize reproduction and immigration. Be careful what you wish for. Remember: the Earth is finite. Non-renewable resources are depleting – of some crucial metals, minerals, and fuel sources, only a few decades worth are left. Renewable resources are being depleted far faster than they can be renewed. Eventually they will collapse – some (like Newfoundland’s fisheries) already have.

  • Marta

    Beautifully stated.

  • JonThomas

    She completely destroyed your ‘competition as nature’ concept. Are you going to accept that you were wrong and consider altering your view? Or, will you just keep on trolling as a drone to a failed ideology?

  • JonThomas

    Sorry, faulty reasoning alert…. faulty reasoning alert.

    Poverty is not as to wealth, as failure is to success.

    Success and failure are degrees on a scale measuring an attempt.

    Poverty is a measure of wealth, not its antithesis.

    Go back to the drawing board. Let’s see if you too will reconsider your ideology after a failure.