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Why Making Public Policy is a Lot Like Dance Parties

Why Making Public Policy is a Lot Like Dance Parties

In Derek Silver’s terrific TED Talk, a man dances in a field alone, before being joined by one, and then hundreds of others.

An emerging set of research, led by Bryan Jones, of the University of Texas and Frank R. Baumgartner, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests that policy issues follow a similar trend. At any given time, most issues receive very little public attention. However, when they do receive attention, the attention increases rapidly and disappears just as quickly, in what Jones and Baumgartner call “punctuations.” Those punctuations, while all but impossible to predict or identify the origin of, often lead to long-lasting changes in policy.

About three years ago, Professor Baumgartner and I began to explore the public discussion of poverty policy in the United States. We asked how changes in the way the United States public discussed the poor over the last 50 years have led to changes in the way our government approaches poverty.

Our article, published in last month’s Policy Studies Journal, concludes that:

1.      In the mid-1960s, media attention spiked, focusing on the poor as deserving of government intervention. During that period, The New York Times wrote more than two articles a day about poverty in the United States, highlighting bad living conditions or economic hardships. The increased attention was followed by a spike in means-tested spending, relative to the amount of poverty at the time.

2.      From the mid-1970s through today, the attention to poverty has steadily decreased, and the remaining attention has focused on the poor as “lazy” and willing to live off the government. The government’s aggressiveness declined rapidly in the early 1980s, when President Reagan took office, and has since declined more slowly. When not taking into account medical spending, government policy toward the poor is only slightly more progressive today than it was before the start of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Those two conclusions are hardly shocking to anyone who’s watched the government’s approach to poverty in the last few decades. However, this research has helped to form the way I approach my work at MDC, thinking about what it will take to close opportunity gaps in communities.

First, it reminds me of the power of the public image; the strong connection between the way in which we talk about our neighbors and the way we treat them. The heavily racialized image of people in poverty as not wanting to work, or as using the government to get by, led to the government pulling back from issues of poverty. That image is shaping our national policy today, with little basis in reason or fact, not to mention driving increased stereotypes and decreased community connectedness. 

Secondly, it reminds me of the power of our government when that government hears from the public. Leading up to the War on Poverty, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others marched on Washington, D.C., Michael Harrington wrote about The Other America, and President Johnson pulled shirt lapels behind the scenes. Attention to poverty increased, and the federal government responded with Food Stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and numerous other pieces of important legislation. Between 1960 and the early 1970s, the nation’s poverty rate declined from 22 percent to 11 percent. Just as civil-rights legislation and a booming economy played an important role in that decline, so did a more aggressive government stance on poverty.  

Finally, this research reminds me of the importance of what a friend of mine calls “revolutionary patience.” In a time of cuts to early childhood education, community colleges, and many other programs that form a foundation for increasing social mobility, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are not on some inevitable decline in the way we treat the least fortunate members of our community and that issues change quickly and without notice. However, just as the decline is not inevitable, the shifts in public conversation do not follow any cyclical pattern, moving from pro-progressive, to anti-progressive, and then back again. Issues and frames compete for the public agenda, and can receive no attention for decades. Instead of the lone dancer in Derek Silver’s TED Talk, there are actually hundreds of individuals dancing alone in a field, and the United States public can only join one of those movements at a time. So, at this time, those interested in creating equity and opportunity should be working even harder and more creatively both to help issues reach the public agenda and to provide solutions for when they get there. We never know when we’ll help an idea’s time come.