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How to Talk About Low-Wage Work

David Callahan

Raising the pay of low-wage workers is becoming one of the top priorities of the progressive movement -- and a crucial test of that movement's strength. If Occupy Wall Street was a sprawling, diffuse howl against the new Gilded Age, the push to raise wages for retail and restaurant workers is a super focused manifestation of the same outrage at how skewed U.S. prosperity (and political power) has become. Occupy spotlighted the problem; the low-wage strikes are offering the solution, or at least one solution. 

Given the stakes, it's imperative to get the framing right about low-wage work. And, luckily, there is already some great public opinion research out there about how best to talk about this issue. That research, commissioned by the Ford Foundation over a decade ago, was conducuted by Meg Bostrom and the Topos Partnership and remains highly relevant today. 

In an October 2007 paper, "Communicating About Poverty and Low-Wage Work: A New Agenda," Matthew Nisbet summarizes the key finding of this research. One of his key points is that the "sympathy for the poor" frame is a total loser. It is simply ineffective to focus on how many low-wage workers are living in poverty, tell sad stories about their lives, and stress that these disparities are unfair. 

The problem with that frame, Nisbet says, is that it couches low-wage work as an issue of "poverty, the poor, and the working poor," as well as eliciting the feeling that "the problem is separate; it is about 'them.'"

A poverty frame also makes people feel that the problem is overwhelming and unsolvable, since poverty has always been with us, and anyway, many Americans tend to respond to the poverty issue by believing that it's up to individuals to help themselves and solve their own problems. 

So what's the best way to talk about low-wage work? Bostrom found that a larger economic message about "responsible planning" was most effective. The winning message went like this:

Creating prosperity tomorrow requires responsible planning today. Too many companies and decision-makers focus on short-term profits and short-term thinking to the detriment of our workforce. And when we allow one part of the workforce to weaken and struggle, it weighs down the economy for us all, resulting in a lower standard of living. Our nation needs to change its short-term thinking and start building goodpaying jobs with benefits, and a strong economy for the long term. 

Why is this message so effective? Because it puts the focus on a broader economic system that we can shape -- not on individual losers in that system -- and makes low-wage work a problem that all of "us" face together. The frame suggests that "Responsibility for fixing the problem lies with citizens collectively. Strengthening communities is one of the objectives for action."

All that makes a lot of sense. And the good news is that many progressives advocates of higher wages are already using this frame. We are saying, again and again, that raising pay for those near the bottom will provide a major boost to the economy as a whole as these workers have more money to spend. For example, this was the key point of a report that Demos released last year on the retail sector. 

This messaging has also been embraced by President Obama, who regularly talks about the broad economic benefits of raising more people into the middle class. In a major policy address last month, Obama talked about building prosperity "from the middle out." 

As Annie Lowrey of the New York Times pointed out, this framing is "also an intellectual counteroffensive against the supply-side economics that has dominated conservative thinking for decades. . . "

So what's not to like? The message works with ordinary people and it pushes back against a generation of bad ideas. 

The challenge here is that almost all progressives are prone to regularly using the "sympathy for the poor" frame at times as well when talking about low-wage work. It's hard not to, given the intense hardships people are enduring simply to increase shareholder returns. 

Anyone who's ever tried to, like, you know, curb a verbal tick knows that getting language right is about reshaping habits. We need to constantly remind ourselves to get the words right. In the case of low-wage work, at least we know what those right words are.