If liberals really want to know what they are up against, they should take a look at the Poverty and Inequality section of the Heritage Foundation's website. I happened to come across it the other day and spit out my coke. According to Heritage, most poor people in America have cars, air conditioning, and spacious homes. They are well fed, able to obtain medical care, and typically have not one, but two color televisions (both with cable). Apparently there is no need to worry about poor people -- we just imagined they were less fortunate -- our misunderstanding results from 'popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.'
Luckily we public policy aficionados have the Heritage Foundation to keep us well informed but what about everyone else? Are they doomed to continue to worry about poor people, destined to try to help those people with washers, dryers and microwave ovens?
The dominant narrative -- in the media and around the dinner table -- promulgates the idea that poor people are lazy, immoral and inherently deficient. More importantly, that narrative asserts that their poverty is of their own doing and has no effect on other, hard working, successful Americans.
The Heritage Foundation is secretly hoping no one reads Anat Shenker-Osorio's excellent new article which challenges the language we use to describe poverty and inequality. She offers unique insight on how to change the language so we might have a fighting chance to change social policies. By oversimplifying the problem as a "gap" between the rich and the poor, we are detaching the problem from the day-to-day effects it has on the lives of most Americans -- those who don't identify as the richest fifth, the group that has 84 percent of the nation's wealth.
The first step to addressing the problems of poverty and inequality is talking about them correctly. For years, language such as "the poor deserve a chance," and "the entitled should help them," has majorly failed -- and for good reason. Who wants to help the lazy anyway? Critics of social policies have succeeded in conflating poverty with lack of work ethic and values-due in part to catchy offensive phrases like "welfare queens" and gross generalizations like the Heritage Foundation's definition of poverty.
As Frank Luntz aptly explains, "By using such a blatantly provocative phrase [welfare queens], Atwater [the individual who coined the phrase] not only shed a negative light on abusers but on the system itself, linguistically paving the way for fundamental welfare reform." Paired with Charles Murray's theory in Losing Ground, this has proven to be a winning combination. According to him, "principles of personal responsibility, penalties for bad behavior, and rewards for good behavior have to be introduced into social policy."
To combat rhetoric of the 'poverty deniers,' it is necessary to think outside the box. Who wouldn't want to help someone who has been systematically barred from things that are rightfully theirs? By changing nuances within the language we use to describe poverty and inequality, we can begin to change the narrative so it is finally accurate.
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