“The Defining Challenge of Our Time” – Moving from concern to action on inequality

President Obama’s State of the Union Speech Tuesday night was the latest in a series of high-profile moments featuring the theme of economic inequality. From Pope Francis’ remarks last year, to the growing push for increasing the minimum wage, to the protests by fast-food workers, to PBS NewsHour debates – it seems like every day there is public attention paid to America’s staggering economic inequality. In his speech on the topic in early December, POTUS went so far as to call it the “defining challenge of our time.”inequality - wealth or poverty

And it’s not just the news media and the President. Recent polls tell us Americans are concerned about the country’s level of inequality. But there also is evidence that the better Americans understand the depth of the nation’s income inequality, the less they support potential solutions. Research shows people instinctually tune out problems that seem overwhelming and unsolvable. And with respect to inequality, when tutored on the facts, they often blame government for causing the problem. Therefore, it’s not surprising that support for policy remedies is hard to come by.

Public Works has done extensive research and field work regarding the challenges to and opportunities for making the case for government’s role in the economy, and we’ve learned some lessons that are relevant to this discussion. But economic inequality in particular presents its own communications challenges.

Foremost among these challenges is the fact that for many people the mere existence of inequality doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. On the contrary, different economic outcomes are easily rationalized away as differences in choices, work ethic or just luck.

One communications expert who researched the use of metaphors as they relate to our understanding of economic policy issues argues that inequality is best described as a “barrier” rather than a “gap”:

“A barrier connotes a big, imposing wall behind which a few can hoard the goodies, while those on the other side are left wanting. When you barricade yourself in, you keep others out. Instead of asking to “bridge the divide,” let’s insist on dismantling the obstacles that keep too many from the gains produced of their own hard work.”

President Obama hinted at this approach in his speech in December when he linked income inequality to barriers to economic opportunity.

“But we know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles. Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”

He went on to list and explain some of the greater harms of inequality. According to the President, inequality is “bad for our economy”, “bad for our families and social cohesion” and “bad for democracy.” That’s a pretty good list, Mr. President. Advocates for changes that would reduce inequality need to do this same thing – develop and repeatedly explain the broader harms of growing inequality.

Shifting to inequality as a barrier and explaining the harms it causes are the first two steps. The third, and perhaps where the President’s speeches on this topic are the weakest, is intentionality – reminding Americans that inequality is a man-made phenomenon that we can solve together. We know from research that people generally think of the economy as a free and natural system that functions best when left alone; they are suspicious of interventions, such as wage floors or regulations. We must challenge and debunk this deeply ingrained understanding of the economy as a benevolent (and sometimes malevolent) natural force. If the economy is not man-made and therefore not under our control, then public solutions of any significance will never be fully considered much less enacted. It’s up to us to explain how policy action and inaction have helped to create the circumstances we find today. And it will take assertive and proactive action by government to bring down the barriers to opportunity.

Successful social movements need a lot more than a new lexicon to be sure. They need consensus on solutions, a network of activists, leaders, researchers and others hitting the streets and the airwaves. But to achieve meaningful change, we need all of those things and a well-thought-out set of communications strategies grounded in how people think.

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