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.



Honor Our Fathers By Telling Their Stories

FathersThis Father’s Day, the National Council of Churches Poverty Initiative is joining with Equal Voice News in honoring fathers who are creating positive change and fighting poverty in their homes and communities.

Please send in your story to NCC Poverty Initiative Director Shantha Ready Alonso at  We’ll feature all the stories I receive on the NCC Poverty Initiative blog and post them to social media with prayer requests. All stories received by Wednesday, June 12 will be submitted to Equal Voice News for their consideration to feature on their online newspaper.

In your email to, please include:

Your name:

Name of nominated father:

Home city:

Organization (if applicable):

What issue(s) is this dad involved with?

Why are you nominating him?

Please attach a photo of him.

With Father’s Day around the corner, let’s be faithful to our call to honor our fathers. Please take a moment to share a gift of recognition, prayer, and encouragement from a nation-wide community.

Mothers Fighting Poverty: Rhonda Case, Portland, Oregon

ImageLeading up to Mother’s Day, the NCC Poverty Initiative is sharing a series of stories lifting up, celebrating, and praying for mothers who are fighting poverty and alleviating suffering in their communities.
Prayer for Rhonda: God, thank you for expressing your love through Rhonda to women in Oregon who draw on her to discover their own resilience. Thank you for filling her heart with love of her neighbor. When times get tough, fill her with your grace and courage. Bless and strengthen her family and her work. In good times and bad, let her life overflow with the deepest joy that only You can give. Amen.
Recognized by: Karen Hessel, who says “Women in or near poverty takes on many dimensions. Those of who have had to deal with the expenses of the legal system, medical and other unprotected costs can plunge women and families into near poverty quickly regardless of education and skill levels. We are all vulnerable. Thank you for doing this project.
Rhonda Case was an educator for more than 27 years. After more than a decade of struggle with legal and safety issues of protecting her own child from serious harm, she felt “called” to act on her commitment to “bring the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence down to earth with a grassroots pilot project in Portland Oregon as a way of transforming our family’s sorrow and suffering into healing for others by working to affect urgently needed social change.”  A colleague in Oregon, whose organization won a Gloria Award in May 2012, and has now become a part of Portland” Communities Inspired to SAIV, wrote, ” You are one of those people whose entire life is a contribution to the cause!”
Rhonda Case deals with issues of child protection from abusive parents, spousal and intimate partner abuse, and all related issues both in terms of protective services and public policy and training in the faith community. Her volunteer leadership in 2012-13 led to the creation of a successful pilot project bringing together faith based and community groups for strategic prevention and healing as a goal; seeking to eradicate intimate violence by transforming the societal structures from which it arises. Rhonda has served as SAIV Liasion, building communities of mutual support for strategic collaboration through “Portland: Communities Inspired to SAIV”.   This new collaborative has formed mutual partnerships to protect the human rights of women children and other oppressed groups whose rights continue to be trampled by violence that is economic, social and personal. SAIV, Portland, offers a way of empowering those whose basic human rights have been violated through intentional connections of key community people engaged in preventing and stopping intimate violence.
Rhonda Case has become a key leader to stop intimate violence in collaboration with faith communities and related non-profits through her partnership with SAIV. She deserves affirmation for her bold leap of faith to risk all for the sake of her “call” to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with her God. We are grateful that she continues with energy, intelligence, imagination and love to reach out to those who can share in this work in ways that are effective and may possibly lead to actual employment in her new vocation (as the scarce personal resources she has garnered are tapped dry). Her resilient spirit inspire me to believe that this is indeed possible!    Happy Mother’s Day to Rhonda Case!

Mothers Fighting Poverty: Rev. Traci Blackmon of St. Louis, Missouri

ImageLeading up to Mother’s Day, the NCC Poverty Initiative is sharing a series of stories lifting up, celebrating, and praying for mothers who are fighting poverty and alleviating suffering in their communities.

Prayer for Traci: God, thank you for expressing your love through Traci to the St. Louis community in so many ways. Thank you for filling her heart with love of her neighbor. When times get tough, fill her with your grace and courage. Bless and strengthen her family and her work. In good times and bad, let her life overflow with the deepest joy that only You can give. Amen.

Recognized by: Dr. Deborah Krause and Dr. Martha Robertson, Eden Theological Seminary

Rev. Traci Blackmon is a pastor ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal church and the United Church of Christ, a licensed registered nurse, and a mother of three. She currently serves as the 18th installed and 1st woman pastor in the 156 year history of Christ the King United Church of Christ. Rev. Blackmon uses her access to the profession of health care to connect people living in poverty in St. Louis, Missouri with free access to healthcare – delivering thousands of free flu shots to different centers around St. Louis each year. (This year we offered the shots in the Eden Chapel and over 500 people were served!)

As a licensed Registered Nurse with over 25 years experience in health care, Reverend Blackmon is employed as the Coordinator of faith-based initiatives for BJC HealthCare and as a senior consultant with The Praxis Group, LLC.  Reverend Blackmon has created and facilitated capacity-building workshops on such complicated issues as racism; sexism; heterosexism; classism; interfaith dialogue; congregational grief and domestic violence.

In addition to her work in community health care, Traci’s congregation offers many resources to the families and children of St. Louis – empowerment for young women and girls, an oratory contest to inspire and challenge children, many education programs, and employment help. It is a church with a real passion for social justice.

ImageFinally, Traci is one of the organizing leaders that is bringing Magdalene House to STL which is a transitional and empowerment program to help women move out of sex work and off the streets.

Traci is an incredibly powerful leader, and is the mother of three wonderful young adults: Kortni; Harold II; and Tyler Blackmon.

Mothers Ending Poverty: Stephanie Krauss, St. Louis, Missouri

ImageLeading up to Mother’s Day, the NCC Poverty Initiative is sharing a series of stories lifting up, celebrating, and praying for mothers who are fighting poverty and alleviating suffering in their communities.

Prayer for Stephanie: Creator God, thank you for expressing your love to disconnected and dropout youth through Stephanie. Thank you for filling her heart with a passion for “the least of these” (Mt 25:40). When times get tough, fill her with your grace and courage. Bless and strengthen her family and her work. In good times and bad, let her life overflow with the deepest joy that only You can give. Amen.

At age 15, Stephanie Malia Krauss dropped out of high school. In her teenage years, she experienced adversity, but thank God she found support to get her GED, go to college, teach with Teach for America, and continue on to get two master degrees in Education and Social Work. Her experience of feeling lost in her teens led her to found the Shearwater High School, a college-preparatory public charter school serving disconnected and dropout youth, ages 17-21 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Inspired by her faith and her hope for a better future for other youth like her, she has raised millions in financial and in-kind contributions to the school. Now, she is president and CEO of Shearwater Education Foundation, an organization that aims to lead policy change and program design efforts that positively impact the education of disconnected youth, which includes supporting the growth and development of Shearwater High School. She serves as a member of the St. Louis Regional College Access Pipeline Project, and as an advisory board member of Preferred Family Healthcare.

Stephanie leads with confidence but also humility, ensuring the school and Foundation are focused on the students and not on a charismatic founder (although she has a gift for making fast friends!). Stephanie’s always being mindful of working to put family and faith first in spite of the demands and importance of her life’s work. She lives with her husband, Evan in St. Louis with their two young sons, Justice Hi’ilani and Harrison Drew Koali’i. Her family participates in a Mennonite community.

Recognized by: Shantha Ready Alonso, for whom Stephanie is a dear friend from social work school and a great inspiration.

Frequent Flyers Move the Hearts of Congress.

ImageMany have already begun to experience the harsh impacts of the foolish Budget Sequester that set in motion indiscriminate slashes to government funding on Friday, March 1, 2013. Budget experts said it would be very difficult to reverse the sequester, and most did not have insight into how to help the 600,000 women and young children projected to lose nutrition aid from the Women, Infants, and Children program, or the estimated 70,000 young kids projected to lose access to Head Start preschool. All we could do was keep advocating for a change of heart in Congress and to finally create our long-awaited “grand bargain” bipartisan budget deal. Some thought we’d have to wait for the second coming before that happened.

When the Sequester created furloughs for air traffic controllers who ensure flight safety, Congress received many complaints about delays from those who fly and the industries that support them. Lo and behold! Where there is a will, there is a way. The U.S. Congress speedily responded. Fight delays have been eliminated overnight. Then, they went home for a week long recess.

They went HOME?! They should have been just getting started.

Christians have long looked to Matthew 6:21 to understand the federal budget from a faith perspective: “Where your treasure lies, there will your heart be also.” Where are the hearts of Congress? Why respond with such urgency to flight delays, and leave waiting – indefinitely – the thousands for whom the sequester could mean homelessness, hunger, and family hardship. If our hearts are with “the least of these,” that is where we should invest our treasure. We have a Congress whose actions just sent our nation’s most vulnerable a message that their hardships are less of a priority than the inconvenience of light delays.

We are also a people of hope, and long before the sequester started, we said that there are faithful alternatives to sequestration. We still believe that, and we see the hope in Congress’ action, however flawed the timing and prioritization. It is not too late to reverse the sequester and pursue these faithful alternatives.

It is up to us to generate the will in Congress to make a better way forward. Tell them they must fly back from recess, fix the sequester, and set things right.

Please adapt and personalize your message to your Senators and Representative. If you or someone you know are personally impacted, it is important they know, so they can put face those who they are harming, and put you and those you care about in THEIR hearts. Ask them to reverse the sequester’s impact on the most vulnerable, and instead embrace a Faithful Budget that creates a Circle of Protection around the programs serving the most vulnerable — a budget that puts our treasure where our hearts lie.

Easter Hope to End Child Poverty: Spring 2013


Church of the Brethren Christian Citizenship Seminar 2013

Christ is risen, and Easter hope is alive among Christians working to end child poverty. Check out our Spring newsletter.

Read about how:

* the Church of the Brethren cultivates Christian citizenship ethics and skills in youth

* West Virginia and North Carolina faith leaders are tackling child poverty

* you can write to Congress and tell them how the Sequester is hurting children

* you can attend the Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.

Read about all this and more here.

Easter Blessings,