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We are not poor. We are stuggling to make ends meet
July 26, 2014 6:10 AM   Subscribe

Bill Moyers: Question? 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?. And stop talking about the economy as if it was the weather.
posted by rmhsinc (56 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
A lot of very smart and enlightening nuggets in that short piece. Change the stigmatizing language and struggling people of all backgrounds and incomes will find that they have an awful lot in common. Thanks for posting.
posted by stargell at 6:27 AM on July 26 [4 favorites]


This isn't how people talk about the weather. I mean, Bill Moyers, I totally believe that he falls into that category, but looking at the media as a whole, the equivalent here would be if the nightly news was full of stories about a tornado that decimated a town in Iowa and what bums they all are for living in houses that are just piles of rubble and ew look at how dirty they all are.

I get that they're talking more in terms of what people trying to help need to do to be able to reach people, but I can't help but feel like if this language shifts, so will the language of people who depend on making sure that poverty stays stigmatized. This comes uncomfortably close to admitting that the conventional narrative is right about the aid-dependent being valueless as human beings, as a strategy to try to reach the rest of the population. C.f.: bus, thrown under. Not that I think they intend to, at all, but the proximity to it is worrying.
posted by Sequence at 6:29 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


This isn't how people talk about the weather.

It often is: The stock market is up 15 points today, winds will be out of the northeast with dropping temperatures, and the Fed reports that earnings estimates are flat.

Phrases like “struggling to make ends meet,” “living on the brink,” “working for family” describe lived experience and not identity.

This reminds me of how harm reduction people distinguish between "gay" (the identity) and "MSM" (men who have sex with men, the lived experience) in order to effectively connect with more people. It also reminds me of the discussion a bit down the page about the "Women Against Feminism" tumblr, where it is clear from many of the photos that the women are living feminist experiences, but do not identify with that identity.

It's easy to jump straight to the identity, but a lot of times people are not there with you -- their lives may fit your definition of that identity ("poor") but they identify in other ways ("working to support my family," say). It's an important distinction and I suspect the interview is correct that navigating that is a necessary component to building connections and support for policies.

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.

Those are cultural, not just economic, identities, that say more about your aspirations and values than they do your income. I could win the lottery tomorrow or lose my job, and I'm still going to be forever culturally middle class -- right now my economics match my cultural identity, but it won't always, which is very difficult to navigate.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:47 AM on July 26 [32 favorites]


I can't help but feel like if this language shifts, so will the language of people who depend on making sure that poverty stays stigmatized.

Yeah, that's the euphemism treadmill for you. If the rational left starts using phrases like "struggling to make ends meet" to replace "poor," so will the right. "All these people say they're 'struggling.' America is the Land of Opportunity! Nobody is struggling; they're obviously just lazy!"
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:10 AM on July 26 [4 favorites]


On the flip-side of this, Moyers interviewed Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, about poverty and related issues.

His non-stop buzzword use and repeated insistence that unfettered free market capitalism was the solution to income inequality even in the face of Moyers' attempt at having an actual dialogue on issues was maddening.
posted by hippybear at 7:14 AM on July 26 [5 favorites]


I remain endlessly curious as to how so many people became convinced that it was language which made any particular situation stigmatic, rather than the daily fucking miseries inherent in a situation.

Whatever someone decides to call "poor" makes absolutely no damn difference to the people who are, in fact, poor -- but, per usual, this is all about enabling one class of people to remain content in their self-congratulatory empathy. "Look at us! We're not using stigmatizing language! We are better than the people who do!"

Disgraceful, all the way round.
posted by gsh at 7:15 AM on July 26 [7 favorites]


I can't help but feel like if this language shifts, so will the language of people who depend on making sure that poverty stays stigmatized.

Of course it will, which is indicative of the problem. You want to change to verbs to engage the people who are getting stigmatized? That's fine, but it won't change the fact that they are being targeted and will continue to be targeted.

In a sense, this is just more of talking about economics like it's the weather. It's not enough to make poor people realize they're poor. It's not even enough to acknowledge that we have to change the economic framework to stop debasing poor people. We have to be willing to name names and identify not just the actions but the actors responsible. These policies didn't just manifest one day like weeds that need to be pulled. They are a deliberate strategy by very specific players, and as long as we're too gutless to name and shame them (or worse, just shrug and say, "it's both sides" -- which it is, but that's part of the problem, not a solution -- we'll continue to follow along with that strategy.
posted by Legomancer at 7:21 AM on July 26 [6 favorites]


I can vouch for the identity thing. I was "middle class" when cheap ramen packages were a staple of my diet, car repairs and medical expenses always went on credit, and sometimes my parents would have to bail me out.

I am still "middle class" earning four times as much, having no debt aside from a mortgage, and not really worrying about money (except wondering how retirement could possibly function).
posted by Foosnark at 7:29 AM on July 26 [5 favorites]


It often is: The stock market is up 15 points today, winds will be out of the northeast with dropping temperatures, and the Fed reports that earnings estimates are flat.

I'm not saying it's universal, just that if you look at the media as a whole, those reports on the Dow Jones Industrial Average are mixed in heavily with material with a distinct agenda. I don't think this guy is Completely Wrong, just maybe a bit naive? If he's naive, then, I can see there being a problem in how effective it would be to assume that it's just that people aren't getting relevant information, as opposed to assuming that they are deliberately being presented with misinformation by people with political and economic motives opposed to those of the working poor.
posted by Sequence at 7:31 AM on July 26


Isn't this in answer to the question why Americans so often vote against their own economic interest in favor of politicians who only serve the rich? I don't get the pushback here. This is just one way to address the problem.

It seems to me there needs to be a major shift in American attitudes towards labor, class and the economy. How is that going to happen when so many people think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires?
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:32 AM on July 26 [15 favorites]


It seems to me there needs to be a major shift in American attitudes towards labor, class and the economy.

I had a conversation with someone recently about how, to a large extent, many of the social justice struggles that were initiated during the 60s are now reaching their fruition. But that it becomes easy to forget that there were, at the same exact time (even at the same exact events) major economic justice issues being brought up, and those have fallen by the wayside across the decades, much to the collective detriment of our society.

So maybe now we can start getting serious with that other set of struggles, the economic justice ones, because those are deeply important and if history is any guide, it's going to take 40 years to win those battles, too.
posted by hippybear at 7:48 AM on July 26 [7 favorites]


You want to change to verbs to engage the people who are getting stigmatized? That's fine, but it won't change the fact that they are being targeted and will continue to be targeted.

Right, I don't think anybody is claiming that just changing the words we use will change the economic realities that people are facing. I think the point is that the stigmatizing language actually prevents people from engaging in a debate which is very relevant to their own lives.
posted by number9dream at 7:50 AM on July 26 [16 favorites]


Whatever someone decides to call "poor" makes absolutely no damn difference to the people who are, in fact, poor

That is the exact opposite of the conclusion reached by the linked study, which involved, among other things, speaking with about 1,700 people who are, in fact, poor and asking them what they thought
posted by mrbigmuscles at 7:58 AM on July 26 [36 favorites]


I mean, not to just be snarky - I take your point that stigma flows both to and from words; which is why these debates over vocabulary choices and hurt feelings seem never ending. But this isn't about not offending poor people, it's about using language that will get them to engage in the political process and hopefully in a way that is actually beneficial to their own interests. Read Thinking Points, or re-read it. The Republicans are light years ahead on this stuff thanks largely to guys like Frank Luntz.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 8:10 AM on July 26 [9 favorites]


Whatever someone decides to call "poor" makes absolutely no damn difference to the people who are, in fact, poor -- but, per usual, this is all about enabling one class of people to remain content in their self-congratulatory empathy. "Look at us! We're not using stigmatizing language! We are better than the people who do!"

I think you totally misunderstood the article - if you bothered to read it at all.

The point is that when you use words like "poor" or "poverty", most people that are actually poor will not realize that they are talking about them. So when you make actual policy proposals and say "Let's do XYZ because it will reduce poverty and help the poor," the people that would benefit most from such policies will just tune out. It would be surprising if this didn't also have an effect at the polls.

So it's not about being "better" than other people or avoiding stigmatizing language, but about getting your message through to a certain sector of the population - namely the poor.

On preview: What mrbigmuscles said, and yeah, I was also thinking of George Lakoff.
posted by sour cream at 8:14 AM on July 26 [10 favorites]


I can't speak for anyone else, but my point wasn't that a change in terminology and focus isn't important. It absolutely is, if it engages the people it needs to.

My point is that engaging isn't enough if we're not ready to proceed to the next step. Amassing an army is great, if if you can't tell them who to fight for fear of hurting feelings, summoning lawyers, or "alienating possible allies" then they'll just stand around, and that seems to be where we are. There are voices on the sidelines being willing to point to Koch Industries, Walmart, ALEC, and so forth, but the majority of the media is content to treat economic inequality as either something that just happens, an unfortunate side effect of totally necessary unregulated (and in fact government-propped) capitalism, or "a problem on both sides of the aisle". No matter where they side, the result is that there's very little anyone can do about it.

Which, given how well it's entrenched, may in fact be the case.
posted by Legomancer at 8:21 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Whatever someone decides to call "poor" makes absolutely no damn difference to the people who are, in fact, poor

As one of those people, I DGAF what we're called (though I recognize obviously how the stigmatizing language affects others, and that matters, dammit), I just want to be treated like a fucking human, you know?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:22 AM on July 26 [3 favorites]


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.
Who you mean "we"?

So, "we" built an economy which intentionally impoverishes 100+ million people and somehow talking about things differently is going to change this? The problem is that making things better for those 100+ million people is going to make things worse for people like Bill and Deepak. And more importantly, it's about changing who has power in this country. "Messaging for Economic Justice" is so far down the doublespeak hole I don't know really how to respond.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:26 AM on July 26 [2 favorites]


> So when you make actual policy proposals and say "Let's do XYZ because it will reduce
> poverty and help the poor," the people that would benefit most from such policies will
> just tune out.

It feels shameful to think of yourself as the target of a policy devised by those much better off than yourself. If it is an "uplift" policy, that makes it feel just that much more shameful.
posted by jfuller at 8:29 AM on July 26 [3 favorites]


People just don't want to face things to save face. We have euphemism-ed reality to the point where poor people do not know they are poor. They have cable and a godphone and think they are middle class. They max out their credit cards and line of credit thinking things will turn around and it will be all right. The reason nothing is really turning around is that the P-word (poverty, poor) cannot be uttered -- no one wants to hear those other P-words (pity, pathetic) because as long as the apps are free, people have leisure of some sort and if they have leisure, then maybe, just maybe they aren't poor.

That way, we don't have to question authority, the system, our beliefs or even ourselves.

People may have a university degree and be employed -- and they can even pull in a decent gross -- but it is the net that counts and no one wants to talk about that -- so they can lull themselves into thinking everything is great and no one needs to do something because there are enough (false) signs that people really aren't poor and this is all some sort of temporary blip.

Until people can face reality that there is a problem and that the problem is ugly, can happen to anyone, good or bad, that judging other people to make yourself feel better is as dysfunctional as it gets --- and that you don't solve a problem until you identify it as such, it will just keep on happening...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:34 AM on July 26 [5 favorites]


It feels shameful to think of yourself as the target of a policy devised by those much better off than yourself.

Really?
But most (if not all) policies are devised by people who are much better off than >90% of the population. And I don't think that many of those 90% feel much shame about this...
posted by sour cream at 8:35 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


It feels shameful to think of yourself as the target of a policy devised by those much better off than yourself.

It feels shameful now, yes. But the point is, on some level, that it WAS and IS policies devised by those better off which have led to 1) a minimum wage which isn't pegged to inflation, 2) constant reductions in food stamp benefits, 3) the dismantling of any truly effective form of welfare, 4) a health care system which remains out of reach for the truly poor (despite the ACA and its good intentions), 5) a complete lack of current public works programs which were so successful in building this country back in the 1930s and 40s and provided employment in a time of need, etc etc I could go on.

The list is pretty lengthy of the policies which are in place which were enacted by mainly White Men With Money who were more concerned with business interests and the top 20% than anything to do with the lower 80% and the General Welfare of the citizenry.
posted by hippybear at 8:37 AM on July 26 [8 favorites]


The Republicans are light years ahead on this stuff thanks largely to guys like Frank Luntz.

Presumptive GOP candidate Marco Rubio was on NPR the other day saying we don't have an income inequality, but we have opportunity inequality.

Well, we do have that too, Mr Rubio. His thinking was if people had more opportunities they'd make more money and there would be fewer poor people. Sounds great! His example was a person working the counter at Burger King. If they could rise to management they'd make more money! But he didn't say how he'd enable more opportunity. It didn't sound like he planned on raising taxes on the wealthy to make college free. Or provide housing for the homeless. No, he's tapping into the whole if you just pull yourself up from your bootstraps you can make it in America bullshit.
posted by birdherder at 8:39 AM on July 26 [9 favorites]


And, I guess the point is, we need to start finding a way to talk about these things where it is NOT a point of shame to realize these things. Echoing back to the struggles of the 60s in civil rights, there needs to come a time when the bottom 50% can stand up and reclaim their dignity in the face of stigmatizing language, reclaim the language as their own, and begin to find their power in the face of adversity.

Until then, as stated above, many who should be fighting for economic justice will continue to vote like they are merely inconvenienced millionaires.
posted by hippybear at 8:39 AM on July 26 [2 favorites]


It feels shameful to think of yourself as the target of a policy devised by those much better off than yourself.

And this is just part and parcel of the toxic "Protestant Work Ethic" that permeates American culture and blames the poor for their own poverty.

Do you think that the rich and their corporations feel one iota of "shame" when they lobby to have policies instated specifically for their own benefit at the expense of others?
posted by Freon at 9:08 AM on July 26 [2 favorites]


"Do not identify with the language used by policy makers" sure is a roundabout way of saying "they know they're being talked down to."

And changing the words you use to talk down to people won't help.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 9:10 AM on July 26 [2 favorites]


> And I don't think that many of those 90% feel much shame about this...

Yeah. The trick is not to think about it. But then where that major shift in American attitudes towards labor, class and the economy is going to come from becomes a question to which there is no answer. My own guess is that it isn't going to happen, period--unless a lot of people become a lot worse off than they now are.
posted by jfuller at 9:12 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


People just don't want to face things to save face. We have euphemism-ed reality to the point where poor people do not know they are poor. They have cable and a godphone and think they are middle class.

There is some truth to this. I remember an ex of mine would get furious when I referred to us as being poor or low income -- even though I was making around $8000 a year and she was generally unemployed.

And this is just part and parcel of the toxic "Protestant Work Ethic" that permeates American culture and blames the poor for their own poverty.

I have a close friend who insists I am simply lazy or addicted to living in poverty. Never mind the mental illness, possible neurological issues (which, thanks to the ACA, I can now go through the process of getting diagnosed), or the fact that if his spouse didn't have a very good job, he'd be in pretty much the same position.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:14 AM on July 26 [8 favorites]


From wiki--remember it was one of the spiritual founders of Sociology, Max Weber< who coined the phrase Protestant Work Ethic. For many who now embrace it as a holy doctrine seem to forget the last part of it:There was a time, in these United States, when a candidate for public office could qualify with the electorate only by fixing his birthplace in or near the "log cabin." He may have acquired a competence, or even a fortune, since then, but it was in the tradition that he must have been born of poor parents and made his way up the ladder by sheer ability, self-reliance, and perseverance in the face of hardship. In short, he had to be "self made." The so-called Protestant Ethic then prevalent held that man was a sturdy and responsible individual, responsible to himself, his society, and his God. Anybody who could not measure up to that standard could not qualify for public office or even popular respect. One who was born "with a silver spoon in his mouth" might be envied, but he could not aspire to public acclaim; he had to live out his life in the seclusion of his own class.[2] I think seclusion to his own class is a step in the right direction
posted by rmhsinc at 9:38 AM on July 26 [5 favorites]


@Dip Flash: gay and men who have sex with men aren't equivalent as identity/lived experience because there are bisexual men.

Thanks for posting this—Bill Moyers is a treasure and the United States would do well by having a left-wing that cares about poverty. I'm glad that some remnant of the New Deal/New Left-style left-wing that used to talk about it is still around.
posted by koavf at 9:42 AM on July 26 [3 favorites]


I know that the correct Metafilter response is to scoff and be outraged (and talk about poor people having false consciousness, in really condescending terms, as if there can't actually be any such person reading this), but I sort of understand why verbs feel better than adjectives. It's an extension of the people-first language thing, which I'm sometimes dismissive of but also kind of understand. Talking about "poor people" makes it sound like your poverty defines you. Talking about people who are struggling makes it sound like someone is addressing your circumstances, not your existential state.

Another quick thought: I live in a neighborhood where almost all the kids qualify for free or reduced price lunches. I think it's fair to say that a lot of my neighbors are poor. But a lot of my neighbors are also immigrants, and they are measuring their well-being against a different standard than most Americans are. It's really common to see families where the kids are six inches taller than the parents, just because the kids have never been chronically malnourished. You're going to have a hard time convincing people that they're poor when their material circumstances are so much better than they grew up with. I think that different kinds of language are more likely to resonate.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:02 AM on July 26 [4 favorites]


gay and men who have sex with men aren't equivalent as identity/lived experience because there are bisexual men.

They are not identical because there are many, many men who sometimes or often have sex with another man but who will also say "I'm not gay," and so effectively connecting means focusing on the action, not the identity. Some are also having sex with women, some are not; it's not as simple as bisexuality (and again a lot of men who are having sex with both men and women won't identify as "bisexual"). Some men are on the downlow, or are having sex in prison or in a male-only military unit, or it's just sort of a thing that happens when you are drinking sometimes, or it's not "gay" if you are on vacation, or if you are the active partner, or if they are paying for it, or whatever it is that makes sense to that person.

Any identity that carries stigma (poor, gay, etc) is going to have some people resisting that label, even if they meet some objective criteria like income level, because people want to avoid stigma and also because that objective criteria can be a poor fit onto the way they see their actual life -- your income is low now but you expect to get your degree and a promotion, say.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:08 AM on July 26 [2 favorites]


Ah. Point taken. Thanks.
posted by koavf at 10:10 AM on July 26


I don’t know. The problem to me with phrases like “struggling to make ends meet,” is the lack of precision. The Catch-22 is that it is a phrase that most of us can identify with, and that also means that it's a phrase that refers to no specific group of people at all.

There shouldn't be anything stigmatizing about words like "poor," and "poverty," but conservative culture has been successful at tainting those words, just like conservative culture has been successful at tainting words like "feminism" and "progressive." Do we let the conservatives have their pejoratives or do we try to reclaim them? Which strategy will create better outcomes?

>"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.”

I work in grant making. The problem is that, once you open up that kind of imprecision in language, it will be purposefully misconstrued to obscure the neediest. I see it all the time where organizations that have nothing to do with poverty apply for a grant to help keep their not-poverty-concerned lights on and they used some twisted logic model to get there. And a lot of our grant officers fall for it time and time again.

This supposed bonus from imprecise language is the flap in the tent for the camel to stick its nose. People with social capital use their social capital to obtain more social capital. That have an accumulated advantage over those who have no social capital at all.

Using less jargon is important but, at the same time, I’m reminded of the idea that we still need feminism in an age where we all also want egalitarianism for people of all genders.

>"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.”

At the end of the day, I’m not really sure what they’re getting at anyway. The above concluding paragraph would win poverty buzzword bingo quite easily.
posted by Skwirl at 10:27 AM on July 26 [5 favorites]


I remain endlessly curious as to how so many people became convinced that it was language which made any particular situation stigmatic, rather than the daily fucking miseries inherent in a situation.

Of course, it is the daily fucking miseries of the situation which imbues language with stigma, which is why every time they change the language, the new words tend to eventually take on all the old meanings that they were trying to ditch.

But that doesn't mean there is no value in making the on-going effort to a) find a more effective means to communicate with the population you are trying to help and b) find a way to talk about the problem minus the huge amounts of baggage that the "old" words tend to carry (blaming, shaming, reinforcing the idea that it is hopeless and you can't escape, etc).

There are two kinds of poverty: relative and absolute. Absolute is about not having enough to meet basic needs. Relative is not having as much as other people. There is no clear dividing line between the two because if, for example, you have no car, in the U.S. that can be a barrier to employment not just in practical terms but due to social stigma. Even if you are perfectly capable of getting around without a car, your lifestyle is different from that of others, many people can't wrap their brain around it, you are assumed to be "poor" and, thus, incompetent. So having less than average/some group norm/some outside expectation can be a real barrier to bettering yourself. And that can become a big problem in terms of falling into absolute poverty, where you really can't get your baseline needs met.

America is a such a rich country and our policies are such that housing is basically built for rich people. It is hard to find basic, decent housing these days. So we are, as a country, increasingly seeing that people who can afford a home at all are living in basically mansions and then homelessless is on the rise. When the divide is that extreme and falling on the wrong side of it can be such a huge barrier to getting your basic needs met, no, you don't want people mentally putting you on the wrong side of that dividing line.

I think one of the things that matters here is that people who see themselves as "struggling" rather than "poor" are people who are saying "I have not given up hope. I want and expect a better future." And I think that is part of why this matters: Because once someone gives up hope and sees themselves in terms which are basically damning, it really does harm to their ability to overcome their circumstances. If you conclude it is hopeless and you stop trying, it becomes self-fulfilling prophesy. If you aren't even going to try, the odds of things improving become really, really grim, really, really fast. Because once you stop trying, then, basically, you are waiting for a miracle. You are waiting for a random roll of the dice by the universe. And that is just wildly unlikely. Whereas continuing to work at problem-solving, continuing to try to fix it yourself and all that is a much more reliable means to get there, if you are doing the right things and if the world around you has not diabolically designed things in a way that actively undermine your efforts.

So this stuff matters because once someone's soul has been crushed, then hope gets extinguished because they just stop trying. And that can happen real fast by using language that "agrees" with the idea that you are loser, an incompetent, you have failed, etc.
posted by Michele in California at 10:57 AM on July 26 [10 favorites]


The mind-blowing thing to me is that the operational definition of “struggling to make ends meet” is a) only 2x the federal poverty line and b) one-third of Americans. If that ain’t evidence of a busted system, I don’t know what is.

This caught my eye:
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.
(Of course my first thought is: trade in your colonial for a trailer and you’ll be ahead, but hang with me a minute here…)

Class war for the new economy: paychecks vs. dividends. If you exchange your time for money — in any amount — there’s someone angling to make that amount smaller. “Poverty” has become a dirty word perhaps because nearly everyone in America is one “disruption” away from it.
posted by axoplasm at 12:05 PM on July 26 [9 favorites]


There's some weird pushback here. The CCC has gone out and found, by talking to poor people, what language is effective for talking with poor people. The alternative is talking ineffectively. How is that possibly better?

Also, the interview was not conducted by Bill Moyer, but by his website— presumably by the reporter, Karin Kamp.

There's a bit more information about the CCC study here.

(Curiously, their document says they're seeking messages that "engage the base, persuade the middle and alienate the opposition." So far as I can understand their reasoning, the idea is that if you aim at getting the opposition to agree with you, that impels you to find status-quo proposals.)

Also, the "how we talk about poor people" stuff is perhaps the most engaging part, but it's equally important how we talk about rich people... that is, as people who have made deliberate choices that make 1/3 of the population struggle.

The analogies that people use in politics aren't trivial, and if we don't have good ones, the elite uses its own, which are very effective. Think of how much traction they've gotten from the easily understood, dangerously wrong metaphor that the government has to balance its budget "like a household".
posted by zompist at 12:09 PM on July 26 [10 favorites]


To sort of put this in perspective, my grandmother had a certain pride in class in avoiding "government assistance" in her working life because she had a home, a job, and a modest pension. However the home was an decaying unimproved relic of the 20s, the job eventually let her go, and the pension was burned through in under a half-decade. She lived her last two decades in government housing and then my parents' house.

I see the same narrative at play in the ongoing "why do you take this if you have that" questions that pop up. Why are you getting food stamps when you have a car, cell phone, or your kids have shoes with spider-man on them?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:15 PM on July 26


Why are you getting food stamps when you have a car, cell phone, or your kids have shoes with spider-man on them?

See previously.
posted by hippybear at 12:18 PM on July 26


but it's equally important how we talk about rich people.

Surely this is more likely to be successful? Few people are eager to see themselves as needing assistance, but most people are more than happy to get angry at someone who is screwing them over.

What we need are ways to discuss all the ways that rich people contrive to steal most of the fruits of our labor. We do all the work but they get most of the pay.
posted by straight at 2:33 PM on July 26


Surely this is more likely to be successful? Few people are eager to see themselves as needing assistance, but most people are more than happy to get angry at someone who is screwing them over.

What we need are ways to discuss all the ways that rich people contrive to steal most of the fruits of our labor. We do all the work but they get most of the pay.


I honestly don't see what you think that will accomplish. Riling up the masses and encouraging them to be angry at the relatively small number of people in power can accomplish something if you are looking to incite a bloody revolution. But then what?

I mean, it's easy to destroy. It is much harder to create something better. And tearing down what we currently have does not create something better. Bloody revolution tends to involve a great deal of suffering and the result can be a net loss in overall quality of life for a long time to come for the very people you wish to assist. If it can be effectively pulled off, working within the system for change generally leaves more on the table to be divided up.

And that generally means trying to communicate effectively with the people you are currently vilifying: The people in power, the people who are rich.
posted by Michele in California at 3:02 PM on July 26


While I support what you are saying here, what exactly is to be effectively communicated to the rich people in power which they have not heard before and rejected?

I'm not in favor of violent revolution in general, but unless the government suddenly shifts massively in favor of making grand changes in policy which pries power and wealth out of the hands of those who control the government due to their wealth and power, I don't know what can possibly be said to change the attitudes of those people.

The moral argument of "you need to give those who labor to create your wealth more of the wealth they create for you" has no traction with them. (See my link above to Moyers' interview with the president of the American Enterprise Institute.)
posted by hippybear at 3:13 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


hippybear,

It seems to me that Bill Moyers is trying to talk about how to get better communication happening. His approach is research-based and he is a person in a far better position to be heard by the rich and the powerful than I am.

I don't really know how to effectively reply to your comment beyond that.

It seems to be really common for people on the Internet to reframe something someone else has said and then take some diametrically opposed position, in effect putting words in the person's mouth and then launching an attack at that person for the words they did not say. If you rebut the accusation they give, you get pulled deeper into their black-and-white world view for which they already have a predetermined answer as to which side one should be on (and that is, invariably, not the side they have positioned you upon in their minds and words). If you try to say "I don't think it's like that" and try to talk about your view of the issues, the odds are high that you will be accused of not answering the stated question or of trying to weasel out or something like that.

I would really like to just not go there.
posted by Michele in California at 3:37 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Honestly, have you watched that interview with the president of the American Enterprise Institute?

It's Bill Moyers saying exactly the things that one in my (and probably your) position would want to say to someone exactly like that guy, only what he keeps saying back is exactly what you'd expect someone in his position to say.

We seriously need to find a way to shift the entire way these conversations are had, because that interview shows exactly what sort of intractable worldview we are up against when we start talking about economic justice.

It's entirely similar to what blacks and gays and other minorities were up against in the early 60s when the civil justice movement was being started. But we don't have lunch counters to sit in at and we don't have bus systems to boycott and we don't have unregistered voters to rally to march in the face of police guns and water hoses.

I'm not sure entirely what brush you are painting me with in your comment here, but I'd love to hear you offer something constructive that can change the conversation after you've watched Moyers face off against Brooks. It seems Moyers tried his damnedness, and came up entirely blank.
posted by hippybear at 3:50 PM on July 26 [2 favorites]


I haven't seen it. I am not currently in any position to watch it.

Since it was filmed, I wouldn't expect it to be a good means to accomplish the stated goal of changing minds. You don't win people over by trying to publicly prove them wrong and get them to admit they were wrong on camera, for all the world to see. Plus, "moral" arguments -- arguments about economic "justice" -- tend to fall on deaf ears.

I don't think I can offer you anything constructive in the fashion you would like me to. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what the government is up to. Or what (generic, unreachable) "rich/powerful people" are up to (I do worry about specific "rich/powerful people" who personally impact my life but that is not really on topic). I don't believe in making "moral" arguments. I believe in trying to understand a problem space better and offer something that works more effectively for all interested/effected parties.

I do know some things that work. I am working on things I personally believe in. But I don't imagine you would see that as a valid/relevant reply.
posted by Michele in California at 4:11 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


His example was a person working the counter at Burger King. If they could rise to management they'd make more money!

Let's staff all our Burger Kings entirely with managers! Problem solved!

If you exchange your time for money — in any amount — there’s someone angling to make that amount smaller.

In today's America, you are either an owner (of the system) or a slave (to that system), either someone counting capital gains or a cost item to be cut.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 4:17 PM on July 26 [2 favorites]


"moral" arguments -- arguments about economic "justice" -- tend to fall on deaf ears.

That, in a nutshell, is what needs to be changed. Blacks once stood on the street wearing "I AM A MAN" sandwich boards. Gays had to march in the streets once a year to state that they, in fact, existed, despite the efforts of society to make them as invisible and shame-filled as possible.

We need a similar movement, somehow, with similar visibility in modern US when it comes to matters of economic justice. (Nice use of scare quotes there, BTW. The phrase isn't mine, and it's entirely valid.)

The rolling strikes against fast food restaurants and big box stores are a good start. Much more effective than the Occupy movement was, as far as visibility goes. More needs to be done, but it's going to be a long (I predict continues beyond my death) struggle.
posted by hippybear at 4:21 PM on July 26 [2 favorites]


I have a philosophy: Manage up, empower down.

I code switch depending on which role I’m playing. When I’m managing up, I need precise language because precise language creates accountability. When I'm empowering, I need open-ended language because I don't want to pollute the pool of ideas coming up to me.

This article is really valuable for me, not because I will use it to replace the jargon. I need the jargon. But, this kind of language is very useful for when I need to code switch for the empowering role.

I’m wary that it’s a temporary fix, though. As others have pointed out, the reason why “poor” is a pejorative is because it’s convenient for certain people for it to be so. The permanent fix is to destigmatize income inequality in the first place.

The right is good at the short game. The left is good at the long game. Spreading conservative definitions of specific words is the right’s short game. Spreading acceptance of pure ideas of human rights and human justice is the long game.

The moral arguments, the economic justice arguments, only seem to be falling on deaf ears for the same reason that the hour hand on a clock appears to be standing still. Justice is winning.

We are winning the long game and that’s a really good thing. It’s just tiring and very, very slow.
posted by Skwirl at 4:29 PM on July 26 [7 favorites]


Yeah, see, it isn't scare quotes. And that is kind of why I don't really want to try to engage you.

It is in quotes because I think morality is an attempt to talk about pragmatic issues where, unfortunately, the ultimate cost is not readily visible or readily connected to the actions which result in those costs.

I think we are at a point where we can come up with better mental models more clearly connecting cause and effect and try to talk about solutions in different terms than making people feel guilty or ashamed. The sociopathic personalities that you so often find at the top of corporations often lack that wiring anyway. So appeals to their sense of conscience are going to generally fail -- because they often do not have one. But I have had good results with providing sociopathic individuals with a clear mental model for how it will come back to bite them in the ass if they keep fucking people over. So I tend to talk with people like that about "enlightened self interest" instead of "morals." I find it gets better results. And talking about enlightened self interest requires one to do substantial research and understand what constitutes a good solution for both sides. That means taking their concerns and complaints seriously and not just dismissing it as evil.

I would appreciate it if you would kindly let me walk away from this without any further potshots taken at me as I leave.
posted by Michele in California at 4:34 PM on July 26


Sure. You have so many readily transparent subjects which require discussion in a thoughtful manner in your last comment, but you're free to go. Those who can read will see what is there, and they will have the same questions.

Don't respond to this. There's no point.
posted by hippybear at 4:43 PM on July 26


I wish the fact that half the households in this country make less than half what it would take to be "middle class" would be the lead story on the nightly news for a month. Then we might start getting somewhere.

Then again, as long as I'm wishing, I wish I had a trust fund and a sailboat in the Virgin Islands too.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:31 PM on July 26 [4 favorites]


One of the most powerful comments I've ever read on Metafilter.

After I read that, I sat down and really thought through what I do, what I earn, and what my real economic situation is. I read the Wikipedia articles about classes in America. I felt the world shift beneath my feet: what I had thought I was is not what I actually am. It's galvanized me to see the money flowing like blood behind the face of my country, a place I thought I owned.

Great Depression II is over, don't you see. The USA has recovered -- a prosperous, progressive, right-sized nation of about 70 million people. If you're on the inside of that figure then you don't even see the problem, and the system is back to working fine like before. The rest of us are redundant surplus.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:24 PM on July 26 [8 favorites]


What we need are ways to discuss all the ways that rich people contrive to steal most of the fruits of our labor.
posted by Pudhoho at 10:34 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the article about reframing the concept of a "drug addict." Right, changing labels and framing doesn't fix the problem. But it sure makes it easier for people to accept when they're being screwed or in the case of addiction, contributing to a self destructive process rooted in more complexity than simply "bad choices." In my friend circles in our twenties everyone called themselves "broke" instead and didn't care about health insurance until something physically "broke." Poor actually is a bad word if you wish people to identify with their station in hopes they will fight for better. like literally. It means "bad" and we are tough that early on with grading scales, etc.
posted by aydeejones at 2:41 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Good point. The show is not, after all , called "2 Poor Girls". The word "broke" really feeds into the "temporarily embarrassed" mindset, millionaires or no.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:14 AM on July 27


It feels shameful to think of yourself as the target of a policy devised by those much better off than yourself.

No, it doesn't. The problem is that those policies are fixed to keep you goddamn poor.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:59 AM on July 27


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