11/12/2012 01:10 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Politicians Ignore the Working Poor at Their Peril

In recent years, there has been a trend in politics away from any mention of the poor. Republicans never really paid them any mind, but Democrats have been convinced they should not make any mention of the poor, and instead, focus exclusively on the middle class. The decision to stop talking about the poor was, for Democrats, based on polling data. Pollsters have tested traditional progressive language about the "poor, vulnerable, and needy" and seen that voters don't have a very high opinion of those groups. Furthermore, polling shows that most voters want to self-identify as "middle class."

Because of all of this, many Democrats have reached the conclusion that mentioning the poor or openly championing policies that explicitly benefit them is a political loser. This conclusion has very dangerous policy and strategic implications (especially with the looming sequestration debate) and will ultimately box Democratic leaders into a corner where they have no choice but to sacrifice programs that struggling American families depend on the most. Thankfully, in this case, we don't have to choose between doing what is right and what works politically.

A recent nationwide survey sponsored by American Values Network demonstrates that the problem isn't that Americans don't support the poor or government programs that benefit them. The problem is that voters can't relate to the way progressives have been describing low-income families and why government programs matter, which is the language Democratic pollsters have been testing. The AVN poll showed that, when framed correctly, voters across the socioeconomic and political spectrum respond much more favorably to politicians who talk about the "working poor." And perhaps more importantly, this new messaging trumps the best Republican arguments for cutting funding to government programs that help lower income Americans.

The findings in the poll are pretty much all common sense, but they also fly in the face of current Democratic conventional wisdom. The key is to personalize lower income Americans and describe them in terms of their actions and efforts (such as "working poor" or "struggling families") rather than in terms of their vulnerability, need or lack of privilege.

Perhaps the best example of the power of this new framework is that the poll tested the leading Republican arguments for cutting government programs to determine which were the most convincing. Then it compared those best Republican arguments against arguments in support of government poverty programs that use this new language. Just shy of 60 percent of voters said they found the new language more convincing than the best Republican arguments for cuts. And even more encouraging, this new messaging approach was especially effective with Independents and Republicans.

Another key finding was that voters found politicians who talked about the working poor more authentic and driven by principle than those who talked only about helping the middle class. And using the "working poor" language, 87 percent of voters said helping the working poor should be a top or important priority for government. A whopping 62 percent of evangelicals said it should be a top priority. This evangelical number, especially when compared against voting trends in recent years, demonstrates why message matters and the political potential of embracing the working poor.

I can imagine some might read this post and say it's just about spin. This messaging approach is not about using words to cover the truth, but instead ensuring the words we use better communicate the truth. One of the best indicators you are poor in America is that you are working more than one job. Twenty-six million Americans are paid so little that their families would still be in poverty even with both parents working. It is hard work being poor in America. Americans know that. And they will support politicians who start acknowledging it.

Am I saying we stop talking about the "middle class"? To borrow one of St. Paul's favorite lines, "let it not be so!" The middle class are the economic engine of America. And needless to say, they also represent a big chunk of voters. Our programs and tax systems should always reward hard work over hoarded wealth -- this helps the middle class and the working poor.

I'll close with two final points. First, for all the Democratic talk about the middle class, it was "lower middle class" and especially the working poor who elected Obama. He won 60 percent of those making <$50K. He split or lost every income group above that. Second, some might point to the more recent "people struggling to get into the middle class" Democratic talking point as proof Democrats have been talking about lower-income Americans. But this language comes from a place of stigma and embarrassment -- not pride -- in America's working poor. And it's not accurate. Millions of American families aren't "struggling to get into the middle class." They are struggling to get by. These people aren't out there thinking, "if I can just get that next raise, then I can finally be in the middle class." They are trying to figure out how they can pick up extra shifts to keep the gas from being turned off this winter. That is not an insignificant difference. And it has a real impact on what we can do to give them a leg up and why we can't wait.

In America, we have always valued how hard a person works over what they have. Our politicians shouldn't be embarrassed to even mention our working poor -- they should be proud of them. This is a group of Americans that embodies the spirit of what has made our country great. They face incredible and sometimes seemingly impossible hardships, and yet they keep striving to make a better life for themselves and their families. It's time our leaders started saying so.