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.