How The Poor Got Framed

People respond not the world as it is, but to the world as they perceive it to be. This simple but powerful truth about perspective is particularly important when it comes to setting poverty policy in the United States. Are the poor ‘cheating’ and ‘lazy,’ or is poverty the product of a system that throws up barriers to work and opportunity leading to the neglect and misery of part of the population?

In an excellent new study in Policy Studies Journal, Max Rose and Frank Baumgartner look at the data on media framing of poverty and government generosity from 1960-2008. Even for someone like me who has long thought media matters, the results were stunning. A full 82 percent of the changes in government generosity to the poor can be explained by the tone of media coverage over the previous ten years.

Rose and Baumgartner identified five frames in poverty stories, three positive frames and two negative ones. The chart below is a stacked line graph showing the distribution of stories by framing. The lines always total to 100%, so it is the spaces between the lines that show the percentage of news stories that apply each frame. The negative frames are shown at the top of the chart, above the bold line. Since the 1960s there has been a huge growth in the percentage of poverty stories that use the frame “Lazy” and a major decline in those that frame poverty in terms of ‘Misery and Neglect.’

Rose Baumgartner media 1

This overall decrease in positive frames has been matched by a decrease in the generosity of government. The media tone for the previous ten years is an excellent predictor of the current level of government generosity.

Rose Baumgartner media and generosity


The fit between media coverage and policy appears almost too good to be credible, a point Rose and Baumgartner address in their paper.

…the story appears too simple. However, recall that our measure of generosity incorporates the number of poor, the depth of their poverty, and the percentage of all government spending on alleviating poverty. Similarly, our framing indicator combines the level of attention (e.g., how many stories are printed) with the tone of that attention. One way to understand these surprisingly simple results is to focus on how they summarize and put into context what many qualitative and quantitative studies have shown us over the decades: after the War on Poverty, the discussion turned toward a more negative view of the poor and the policies that supported the poor, making them easy targets when looking for spending cuts.

It is important to note that this is not simply a partisan issue, but instead represents a major shift in the way the United States has looked at poverty. From the paper:

…the new elite discourse on the poor is not simply conservative or ideologically right wing….it has shifted from an abstract ideological stance to one more focused on more operational issues of ‘what works’ and on a long-standing unease at the idea of recipients not working for the benefits they receive. Our data suggest that this focus on the individual, as opposed to the system, may be one of the most important elements of the general ideological ascendance of neoliberalism in American Politics since the 1970s.

I encourage you to read the full paper if you’re interested in the details of the research, but Rose and Baumgartner pull together their main points in this concluding paragraph:

Policymakers, members of the public, and journalists once focused on aspects of poverty that are beyond the control of those who find themselves with dire economic prospects or which focus on the collective costs to all Americans from having large numbers of poor. This resulted in a large decrease in the amount of poverty in this country. From this initial focus, associated with optimistic efforts to alleviate poverty and which justified massive interventions and spending, the public has given up, tired, frustrated, discouraged. Collectively, attention now focuses on what we have called the ‘stingy’ frames: The poor are individually responsible for their problems, and government efforts to help them may do more harm than good. We have shifted from an overwhelming focus on one side of the coin to an equally disproportionate focus on the other side, and policy has followed the framing.

Shifting the dominant frame back to one that focuses on systems and the role they play in producing outcomes is a difficult task, but a necessary one if we are to return to a public policy that treats poverty as a problem worth solving.



A Visual Essay on the Wage-Productivity Gap

In the late 1970s a gap opened up between the productivity of workers, and the amount they were being paid. The not-so-creative name for this trend is the wage-productivity gap. The causes are hotly debated, but the consequences are straightforward. The economy continues to grow through increases in productivity, but the benefits of increased productivity are not shared by workers. This means real wages stagnate, and inequality increases. It also calls into question the justice of a system in which the production of workers is divorced from the wages of workers.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has put together a visual essay on wage-productivity gap.

BLS wage prod 1 BLS wage prod 1a

In chart 1 we see the rate of change in productivity growth compared to the rate of change in real (inflation-adjusted) hourly compensation (1). Chart 2 breaks down the trend by selected time periods. We can see that from 1947 to 1979, wages and productivity grew together. They started to separate in the 1970s, and came completely unglued in the 1980s, through the early 1990s.  The late 1990s was the only time in the past 30 years that real (inflation-adjusted) wages grew with productivity, and then in the 2000s wages remained stagnant while productivity continued to increase.

The growing gap is also reflected in the decrease in labor’s share of output.

BLS wage prod 3



For a long time the labor share was thought to be constant. Here again, the causes are both complex and disputed, but the consequences are clear, less of the work being done by workers is reflected in their wages.

Without really figuring out what’s going on, it’s tough to reverse these trends. Chances are technology, globalization, and loss of union power all play roles in driving down labor’s share of income and opening up the wage-productivity gap. In some cases (technology and globalization) those processes have benefits as well as costs, so the trick is to capture the benefits while reducing or eliminating the costs. This is not an easy task, but there are a few clear implications to these trends.

First, we should support a strong safety net. Stagnant real wages and unemployment are being caused by macroeconomic changes, not individual’s suddenly becoming less productive or less deserving. Second, we can raise the minimum wage to help insure that workers share in the gains of productivity.


(1) Technical note: Taking the log of both indexes allows us to see the rate of change presented visually. Instead of each tick mark representing an increase of X  in a meaningless index, each tick mark represents a percentage increase (in this case, each tick mark is a 22% increase). The gap actually looks much larger if you don’t log-transform the data first, as later changes are bigger in absolute terms than they are in percentage terms.

SNAP Beneficiaries Probably Aren’t Who You Think

As Congress considers cutting SNAP, let’s take a look at whose bodies and brains will be cut into by hunger.

Poverty News Round Up

Here are some of the most notable stories about poverty that were in the news this week.

1. The Boston Globe reports on the devastating impact the sequester is having on public housing.

“Thousands of the state’s poorest residents are losing or being denied federal housing subsidies as a result of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, forcing many to choose between food, rent, medicine — or the streets.

The cuts are pummeling the Section 8 voucher program, which offers assistance to poor individuals and families renting apartments in the open market.”

2. Suburban poverty brings several new challenges for anti-poverty efforts, including transportation. From the Council of State Governments:

“Being away from the bustle of the city was always the point of suburban living but this creates a unique transportation barrier as the poor are now  farther away from their jobs and traditional programs which serve them.”

3. As more women join the workforce and become the primary breadwinners for their families, pressure is beginning to mount for improved child care services.

“Demographers say the change is all but irreversible and is likely to bring added attention to child-care policies as well as government safety nets for vulnerable families. Still, the general public is not at all sure that having more working mothers is a good thing.

While roughly 79 percent of Americans reject the notion that women should return to their traditional roles, only 21 percent of those polled said the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing for society, according to the Pew survey.”

4. With all the attention to tax expenditures in the wake of the new CBO report, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of charitable contributions don’t actually go towards the poor, in fact, only around 30 percent of charitable giving is targeted at alleviating poverty.

From Wonkblog:

wonkblog charitable donations

Models of Anti- Poverty Ministry – Presentation and Recommended Reading

In the first of the NCC Poverty Initiative’s Pastors Ending Poverty webinar series, Tronn Moller of the Faith and Community Development Institute shared some models of anti-poverty ministry for congregations to consider when planning how to confront poverty as a Christian community. Download his presentation here, and watch the video here.

He also recommended the following resources for reading.

Biblical principles of Christian compassion and transformational community ministry:

Jay Van Groningen, Communities First (CRWRC, 2005).

Ronald Sider, Good News, Good Works: Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World (Zondervan, 1993).

Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road (P&R Publishing, 1989).

Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community (InterVarsity, 2003).

Robert Lupton, And You Call Yourself a Christian: Toward Responsible Charity (CCDA, 2006).

George McKinney and William Kritlow, Cross the Line: Reclaiming the Inner City for God (Nelson, 1997).

Bob Moffitt with Karla Tesch, If Jesus Were Mayor: How Your Local Church Can Transform Your Community (Harvest Publishing, 2004).

Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Orbis Books, 1999).

John Perkins, ed. Restoring At-Risk Communities: Doing It Together and Doing It Right (Baker Books, 1995).

Heidi Unruh and Phil Olson, What is Holistic Ministry? Video (Network 9:35, 2003).

Walter Bruggemann, Journey to the Common Good, 2010


Planning and mobilizing church-based community ministry:

Ronald Sider & Heidi Unruh, Churches that Make a Difference, (Baker Books, 2002)

Willie Richardson, Reclaiming the Urban Family: How to Mobilize the Church as a Family Center (Zondervan, 1996).

Ray Bakke and Sam Roberts, The Expanded Mission of Center City Churches (International Urban Associates, 1998).

Victor Claman and David Butler with Jessica Boyatt, Acting on Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference, A Guide to Success in Service and Social Action (Insights, 1994).

Carl Dudley, Community Ministry: New Challenges, Proven Steps to Faith-Based Initiatives (Alban Institute, 2002).

Robert M. Franklin, Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis (Fortress Press, 1997).

Dennis Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Fortress Press, 2001).

Jan Johnson, Growing Compassionate Kids: Helping Kids See Beyond Their Back Yard (Upper Room Books, 2001).

Robert Logan and Larry Short, Mobilizing Compassion: Moving People into Ministry (Revell, 1994).

Kenneth Miller and Mary Wilson, The Church That Cares: Identifying and Responding to Needs in Your Community (Judson, 1985).

Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, The Externally Focused Church (Group, 2004).

Amy Sherman, Restorers of Hope (Crossway Books, 1997).

Amy Sherman, The ABCs of Community Ministry: A Curriculum for Congregations (Hudson Institute, 2001).

Ronald Sider, Phil Olson, and Heidi Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works (Baker, 2002).

Steve Sjogren, ed. Seeing Beyond Church Walls: Action Plans for Touching Your Community (Group, 2002).

Luther Snow, The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts (Alban, 2004).

Phil Tom and Sally Johnson, Handbook for Urban Church Ministries (Metro Mission, 1996).

Heidi Unruh, Phil Olson, and Ronald Sider, Becoming a Church That Makes a Difference: Ventures in Holistic Ministry CD-ROM (Network 9:35, 2006).


Bible study resources on holistic ministry

Justice Now! (Christian Community Development Association, 1992).

Carolyn Nystrom, Loving the World (InterVarsity Press, 1992).

Amy Sherman, Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor: Meditations for Worship, Prayer & Service (Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1999).

Ronald Sider, ed. For They Shall Be Fed: Readings and Prayers for a Just World (W. Publishing Group, 1997).

Reg Parks, Compassion by Command video curriculum (Here’s Life Inner City, 2002).

Best practices ministry profiles:

Robert Carle and Louis Decaro, Jr., Signs of Hope in the City: Ministries of Community Renewal (Judson, 1997).

Barbara Elliott, Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004).

Nile Harper, Urban Churches, Vital Signs: Beyond Charity Toward Justice (Eerdmans, 1999).

Ronald J. Sider, Cup of Water, Bread of Life (Zondervan, 1994).

Samuel G. Freedman, Upon this Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church (HarperCollins, 1993).

Web resources for church-based compassion ministry:

Alban Institute,

Center for Renewal,

Center on Faith in Communities,

Children’s Defense Fund,

Christian Community Development Association,

Communities First Association,

Evangelicals for Social Action,

How Wealth Inequality Hurts Churches

Have you seen the video on wealth inequality that went viral this week? The video is based on a study by Harvard Business professor Michael Norton. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here.

Millions have been passing it around and dropping their jaws when they see the dramatic difference between the average person’s perception vs. the reality of wealth distribution in the United States. The dramatic spike in inequality and decrease in social mobility in the United States runs contrary to everything we are told to be proud of in a country that is supposed to hold opportunity for those who work hard — the American Dream. Our country also has a unique tradition of charitable giving and volunteerism, something we cultivate and take pride in. Yet, as income inequality dramatically grows, all these great traditions that built opportunity in the United States are being undermined.

Neighborhoods in the United States are rarely integrated across income levels, and churches typically draw their base of support from the nearby area. When wealth inequality was not so dramatic, churches and church organizations could circulate a larger percentage of the nation’s wealth. Church funds have traditionally helped bridge gaps for families in need so they would not slip into poverty, and churches were the first in the United States to create anti-poverty ministries such as food pantries and homeless shelters. Today, the bottom 80 percent of income earners bringing in their envelopes and putting money in collection plates circulate a total of LESS THAN 50 percent of the nation’s entire wealth. This means that unless they have members in the top 20% of the wealth bracket or they win generous foundation grants, most churches have a severely limited amount of wealth to work with.

bagsSometimes people argue that if we cut federal government spending on the social safety net programs that alleviate hunger or offer shelter, churches will pick up the slack. This kind of thinking comes from an era when wealth inequality was not so dramatic. The way our country is structured now, a government made by and for the people is an essential partner to fill that role. A Bread for the World study found that if the federal government cut nutrition aid as dramatically as the 2011 Budget passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, each congregation in the United States would have to raise an additional $50,000 to meet the hunger needs in the community. In fact one in every 24 bags of food aid comes from charity. The rest comes from government.

We do have a someone we can look to who has considered questions of scarcity and abundance, poverty and inequality in his ministry: Our God incarnate. Jesus’ miracle of loaves and fishes is interpreted by some to not have been made possible by a magic zap from heaven, but rather by a compelling appeal from Jesus to his followers about the importance of sharing for the good of the greater community. When the miracle of the loaves and fishes happened, food that was once hidden and inaccessible was shared. The hidden abundance was discovered. This is an important story. It appears in all four gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). In the story, as in many modern Christians’ lives, Jesus draws out each person’s best self by orienting them toward loving and serving one another. He supports a sense of community and concern for the common good. Today, such sharing would indeed take a miracle. In our budget and deficit negotiations in the United States, God can use us to make this kind of sharing of wealth happen again. We need a balanced approach to deficit reduction, and from those to whom much has been given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). Those in our nation who have most benefited from our economy can share the hidden wealth so all can realize abundance.

Weigh in: What role do you think the Church should play in ensuring there is enough for all? Comment below or post to our Facebook page.

Models of Anti-Poverty Webinar – March 13th 4:30pm EST/1:30pm PST

ImageI’m excited to announce a great learning opportunity coming up next week: a webinar called “Models of Anti-Poverty Ministry.” Sometimes, churches have a hard time explaining how or why the ministries they do in the name of Matthew 25 took the shape they did. Having tools to clearly name and evaluate “the why and how” behind a ministry can strengthen it tremendously. On March 13 at 4:30pm EST, join in deepening your understanding about roles of a congregation’s anti-poverty ministry in a community.  Click here to register.

The webinar presenter Tronn Moller of Faith and Community Development Institute will share insights on the practices and impacts of a congregation’s anti-poverty ministry. Tronn’s presentation is rooted in years of experience coaching clergy and lay leaders in confronting poverty in their communities. Afterward, participants will have an opportunity to think together about how a congregation in Durham, North Carolina that wants to start a new anti-poverty ministry could discern what next steps to take in their planning. I hope you can join us for this engaging online learning opportunity. I hope to see you online next Wednesday! Register here.

Lenten Blessings,