How Democrats Can Beat Republicans on the Economy

Strategists are bewildered at poll results that consistently show voters rating Republicans better on the economy than Democrats. The Biden administration has advanced multiple progressive economic policies and several current economic indicators are strong. And yet, the Democratic disadvantage on the economy persists. Why?

There are several theories:

Inflation, the cost of things, hits people in the wallet.

Americans are largely unaware of the Biden administration’s accomplishments.

The positive effects of the administration’s policies are still to come.

There is certainly some truth to all of these ideas, but there is an additional dynamic that is far more enduring.

We have to contest Business-Centric bias.

We win and lose at the level of what Topos calls the Cultural Common Sense – ideas that are pervasive, deeply held and often unconscious, but that have power to direct thought and action. These widely shared “short cuts” in thinking have the effect of making some solutions and policies seem self-evident and others seem completely unreasonable. For example, if it seems like common sense that tax cuts lead to prosperity, people are more likely to oppose progressive tax policies – even when they want all the things that taxes could pay for.

When it comes to the economy, Topos research clearly shows that businesses are at the center of our economic considerations—if they aren’t doing well, we all suffer and if they are doing well, we all win. Either way, businesses occupy center stage. In this way, “trickle down” thinking is alive and well, even though Americans reject the term “trickle down.”

This in mind, the average voter may not know much about actual party policy differences, but one thing they know for sure is that Republicans are “pro-business.” And as long as people believe that jobs, wages, consumer goods, innovations and so on flow from business, then it makes “common sense” that the party that looks after business is looking after the economy and prosperity.

Democrats don’t typically contest Business-Centric, Business-First thinking. Instead, Democrats rely on sympathy or fairness. People are struggling and need help. While this appeals to many people, it does nothing to contest the underlying business-first logic. In fact, our research finds that “help” backfires when Democrats become seen as the party of “government handouts.”

We shouldn’t avoid talking about “the economy” – we have to contest the business-first, trickle down mental model once and for all. Progressives cannot win on the economy until we shift the Cultural Common Sense.

We-the-people need to seize our power by claiming our role in the economy.


PEOPLE DRIVE OUR ECONOMY – it is our skills, our labor (paid and unpaid), our spending, our contributions, our innovation, our votes and our advocacy that power our economy and the thriving families and communities we desire. It is not just the right thing to do; it is pragmatic that people’s wellbeing has to come first, not last, because all good things flow from people’s wellbeing.

This core idea (that can be articulated lots of different ways) explains how things work and wins at the level of the Cultural Common Sense.

“People before profits” is a slogan people like, but they don’t feel they can insist on it. “People drive the economy,” however, clearly explains the idea behind “bottom up and middle out.” “People drive” can be expanded upon in numerous ways to clearly and concretely link progressive economic policies with good outcomes for all of us.

When we-the-people claim our role in driving our economy, we flip the focus from what businesses need to thrive, to what people need to thrive.

An economic case justifying why people must come first gives people confidence to demand priority rather than worry that progressive economic policies are fiscally irresponsible.

Importantly, if people drive our economy, then it follows that the more people engaged to their fullest potential in innovation, contributions, economic activity, and wealth creation, the better and stronger our economy is. Equity and inclusion are not just the right and just indicators of a moral economy, they are also economic tailwinds.

We tested this approach in the most anti-worker region in the nation – The South. When we contrast the People Drive model against a typical Business First appeal, we win – even in the conservative South. (Note that the text emphasizes “worker” instead of “people” because the focus of this survey was pro-worker policies, not because “worker” is integral to the idea.)

Graph 1: Topos Research, n=2,500 adults, online, in AL, AR, GA, KS, MO. General Worker version n=832, Inclusion version n=834, May 25-29, 2023.


This simple, powerful idea can be expressed in infinite ways. It provides a rationale for why people can and should demand more and provides confidence that focusing on people’s wellbeing makes good economic sense, not just good moral sense. It creates a new understanding for how prosperity flows that advantages progressive economic solutions and can win at the level of the Cultural Common Sense.

Acting On Our Values is Good Economics

Progressive economic policies that focus on people’s wellbeing can hit a brick wall (or at least a sturdy parapet) constructed by the current cultural common sense – the pervasive, default perspectives that shape our thinking in deep, often unconscious ways – about the economy.

The dominant model of the economy in this country (which successfully undergirds a whole host of conservative efforts) remains skewed toward prioritizing business’ interests over people’s wellbeing, easily reverts to a fatalistic “individual navigation of the economy” frame, and is steeped in pessimism about our ability to create a vigorous, equitable economy that serves us all.

Fortunately, there are powerful, alternative visions and models that can compete at this deep level to build and support the case for progressive economic policies.

Click here for a summary of the essential elements of a people-first paradigm Topos has assembled – along with our partners and clients –  over the past years.

We’ve conducted extensive multi-method research on the ways Americans think and communicate about the economy, across geographies and demographics. These efforts have enabled us to create strategies to advance models of the economy that both stay true to our values AND effectively compete with the current default models that hold us back.

A framework that flips people’s focus from what businesses need for the economy to do well, to a focus on people’s wellbeing (ALL people’s wellbeing) as what is necessary to drive our economy, can be a powerful tool to add to our moral and justice-oriented tools in the box. Along with messages that provide people with an authentic sense of power and agency and connect the dots for a clear role for collective action, including through government policy, this framework can help us make progressive people-first policies the priority.


New Yorkers on the Economy

Our September 2022 survey finds that the vast majority of New Yorkers want government to do more to solve problems and to improve people’s quality of life. They see a state government that works on behalf of the wealthy and corporations, not “people like me.” More than 7 in 10 believe the economic system favors the wealthy and believe the distribution of wealth in the country is too lopsided. They want state policies that make life more manageable for regular, working people, and want to increase taxes on the wealthy so there is public money to invest in things that benefit everyone and boost the economy. Survey Toplines

An Economy Measured by How People are Doing

The Biden Administration has a new and better definition of what “the economy” is and should be.

“My life’s work has been centered on ensuring our families and work are properly valued within our economy.
I’m excited to bring that perspective as a CEA member. We have an opportunity to rethink how we invest in people, and we need to seize it as we rebuild our economy.” Heather Boushey, Member of President-elect Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors

This tweet from Heather Boushey signals an exciting new day ahead at the White House — a new and better definition of what the economy is and should be, playing out in new policies across the board, in agencies from Health and Human Services to Housing and Urban Development and others.

Read the article on Medium.

Making the Case for Federal Aid to the States

House Democrats’ HEROES Act proposal puts state fiscal relief in the spotlight. This document is intended to serve as a brief primer on how to make the case for federal aid. We are grateful to our friends at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for providing expertise and insights to inform this primer.

Lesson #1: It’s not about state fiscal relief.

When we make state and local governments the focus—by emphasizing budgets, shortfalls, accounting balances, etc.—we are directing people to think about money that goes into the black hole of government. In a time of scarcity (like now), state budget cuts will be viewed as unavoidable, and continued massive federal spending will start to make voters queasy. The “blank check” attack will begin to have more and more traction even though voters are currently supportive of aid.

(Note: Years of Topos research on the Cultural Common Sense about government, revenue, and the economy provide several foundational lessons that we should take into account in the COVID moment. By “Cultural Common Sense” we mean the pervasive, deeply held ideas that shape thinking and behavior, for example, that the government has to “live within its means.” Topos studies the Cultural Common Sense because our work suggests it is the level at which political and policy debates are won and lost.)

Lesson #2: It’s about the (people-centered) economy, stupid.

The issue is really about making sure that families and communities can rebound quickly and equitably. This is about helping our communities thrive by keeping teachers, nurses and firefighters employed, keeping our public transit and hospitals running, and so on. Communicators should overtly make the link to the services people rely on, and not assume people will connect-the-dots on their own. Our research finds that budget and tax policy is typically off the radar as a way of solving problems, and few see state and local governments as helpful economic actors, so communicators need to actively advance these ideas.

Relatedly, depending on a state’s particular situation, communicators may want to add the point that without adequate federal aid, states will have to raise taxes. Communicators who want to add that idea should keep in mind that some states may have to raise taxes even with federal aid, so be sure to: 1) avoid framing taxes as a burden; 2) always link revenue to what revenue pays for (as noted above) and 3) distinguish between the regressive taxes states may default to and the progressive tax increases and loophole closings that advocates want to proactively advance.

Lesson #3: Use a “Flow of Money” mental model to simplify the case.

Mental models are simple representations of a much more complex system that serve as shortcuts for understanding, such as “the heart is a pump.” We can simplify and add power to our case with the right metaphors to guide thinking. Our research suggests that a Flow of Money to Communities model is effective. It makes people’s wellbeing the focus, while emphasizing shared fate and our ability to be intentional about creating the economy we want. (While it was not developed specifically for state fiscal policy, we believe the lessons translate.) For example:

States that keep money flowing throughout all their communities will recover faster than those that start laying off public employees and cutting off the flow of money to families and communities.

Austerity measures—drastic cuts in public services, massive layoffs of public employees—have a negative ripple effect throughout our communities as there is less and less money flowing to families for basic spending and through businesses on Main Street.

Time and again, states that keep money flowing in hard times—to hospitals, schools, first responders, small businesses—bounce back faster from a recession. States that stop the flow of money to communities by firing teachers, first responders, aid to people and so on, make it harder for people and communities to get back on solid financial footing.

Lesson #4: Explain how we got here and why the federal government has to help.

We should not assume that people can connect-the-dots on this topic. It is likely that most people are simply concluding that times are hard for everyone right now and states have to tighten their belts too.

Be clear about why states are in trouble, for example, “The public health emergency required a lot of urgent, additional spending like x, y, z. At the same time, it forced us to close down a lot of economic activity, which resulted in less revenue to pay for those urgent needs.”

And be clear about why counter-cyclical spending by the federal government is the solution, for example, “There are a lot of really good reasons why a family takes on debt, like an emergency. But states aren’t allowed to run a deficit. The federal government can, and in times like these, we need the federal government to keep money flowing.”

We hope these lessons prove useful. Please send us examples of how you deploy these lessons in your work!

Will COVID-19 Kill Trickle-Down Economics?

Trickle down…Bootstraps…these flawed mental models of the economy – most often used by those speaking from a conservative point of view – might, at long last, show signs of weakness, providing an opening for progressive models of the economy. Communicators can use this quick review of economic models to win arguments for progressive economic policies now, as well as lay a foundation for public understanding that will last beyond the current crisis.

Mental models are simple representations of a much more complex system. They serve as shortcuts for understanding, such as “the heart is a pump,” and guide people’s attitudes and behavior.


Two of the dominant economic mental models serve a conservative point of view either by building support for economic policies that advantage corporate, wealthy interests, or by obscuring the role of government in shaping economic conditions and opportunities. Progressive communicators should avoid using these models:

Trickle down: While people laugh at the phrase “trickle down,” and argue over who is a job creator, this mental model of money flowing from those with money to those without, from employers to employees, from investors to those who want investment, and so on, continues to influence discourse and build support for harmful economic policies that focus on making sure the wealthy have more wealth.

I am not for raising taxes in a recession, especially when it comes to job creators that we need so desperately to start creating jobs again. Eric Cantor

Guys like me are job creators, and we don’t like having a bulls-eye painted on our back. Steve Wynn

Bootstrap: A sense of self-reliance and belief that with enough hard work anyone can succeed, is firmly ingrained in American culture. It is such a powerful way of understanding the economy that most Americans default to seeing the economy as something that individuals have to navigate as best they can, rather than a system we built and can change. This model is pervasive, used by both progressives and conservatives.

What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate. Donald Trump


Progressives advance several economic mental models; some are very effective in promoting progressive policies while others should be used with caution:

Flow of Money: To combat “trickle down” supply side thinking, advocates have focused on metaphors that promote Keynesian economic theory, such as “bubble up” or “middle out.” The basic idea is that a healthy economy requires that money flow freely, circulating in the places average people live and work.

Congressional Democrats were able to turn upside down the bill that was presented at the beginning of the weekend…It was a trickle-down, corporate bill. It is now a bubble-up, workers bill and we’re very proud of that. Nancy Pelosi

A People-Centered System: When people have money, they create and grow the economy through their work, earning and spending so businesses have customers and can then hire more people to meet demand. When more people are included in the economy, there is more prosperity. This model is very compatible with the Flow of Money model and when combined, they forefront the important role of average workers and communities in creating broad-based prosperity.

Gradual increases in the minimum wage help ensure Vermonters have the economic resources to support themselves, which puts more money into Vermont’s small businesses and helps our communities thrive. Mitzi Johnson, VT House Speaker

We need to create economy-boosting jobs where the average worker feels valued and earns enough money to comfortably spend in their community and to enhance the well-being of their families. When workers can do that, everyone benefits. Henry Ford was right – his assembly line workers needed high enough wages to allow them to buy the cars they built. National Fund for Workforce Solutions

Importantly, both of the prior two mental models ground the economy in average people and communities. They define “the economy” as being about the wellbeing of people and communities, and affirm the contributions of all people, most especially working class people, to broad based prosperity. If money isn’t flowing to all communities, the system isn’t working. If communities of color are not thriving, the problem is the economic policies that are not allowing money to flow there (not flawed or broken individuals). In this way, making sure that every family and community thrives is both the definition of, and a requirement for, a good economy.

The next mental model, common in progressive discourse, is about class and power struggle. It should be used with caution, based on the audience and situation.

Zero-Sum Power Struggle: Progressive communicators often talk about economic disparities and economic fairness as a power struggle. In this view, the economy is rigged by the rich and powerful, so regular folks are in a contest of raw power with elites to win a bigger slice of the economic pie. While widely believed and quite compelling for some audiences, it is also often disempowering, especially for low income people of color who feel overpowered in this struggle. People can both agree with the idea and be convinced that change isn’t possible.

G.E. doesn’t pay any taxes, and we are asking college kids to take on even more debt to get an education and asking seniors to get by on less. These aren’t just economic questions. These are moral questions. Elizabeth Warren

The more we allow Republicans to concentrate the lion’s share of wealth in the hands of a few, the more power these wealthy few will have. And they will use this power to continue rewriting the rules of both our economy and our political system in their favor. Tom Steyer

Finally, there is a new model emerging in the wake of COVID-19, which we’ll call the Lack of Resilience model. It is related to the Flow of Money and People-Centered System models in the sense that it is about how money flows from average people and through communities to create prosperity, but it focuses on the reverse – what happens when money stops flowing? The immediate and drastic shutdown of the economy makes it obvious how vulnerable we are. It is not just that individual people are vulnerable because they are living paycheck to paycheck. It is also the case that because millions are at risk of not being able to afford the basics, spending stops and everything crashes. We are all at risk due to the lack of resilience created by the pay and wealth gaps in the US. We suspect that this emerging model is one that could influence public support for economic policies for some time to come.

Talking About Income Inequality

There’s a lot of public dialogue about income inequality these days.

In a new memo, Topos principals consider the best approach to building public understanding on addressing this economic issue in light of their recently released research on building support for job quality policies like paid time off and higher minimum wages.

A dramatic rise in references to income inequality  – among leaders, journalists and advocates, and disseminated in all media – suggests that influential individuals feel the climate has changed in ways that make an inequality discussion more palatable than it has been in the past.

Since 2008, the economy has changed and the Occupy movement made headlines, so can we assume that earlier cautions no longer apply?

We should be very careful about assuming that is true – partly because the challenges discussed in the 2008 paper mostly arise from fundamental cultural perspectives and cognitive tendencies, that don’t change quickly, if ever.

The Pew Center conducts a regular survey of American values and in a recent report, the Center’s founding director Andrew Kohut and his co-author conclude that there’s been no real shift in public opinion about economic inequality despite the fact that there’s been more media attention to the issue since the Occupy movement and the 2012 election.

Overall, our goal is to help see people see the bigger picture – of what is happening, how it is happening, who is affected, etc. With this in mind, we may be better off not using the word inequality as a leading idea, and using other words for now.

Economy Boosting Jobs + Raising Minimum Wage

Communicating to Increase the Minimum Wage

Efforts to build support for increasing the minimum wage have had several recent successes, leading to new state and local policies across the country. Now the federal debate over increasing the national minimum is heating up. This is an opportune moment to make significant gains for workers and communities, and our whole economy, if we can understand and promote the perspectives that lead to policy wins.

To take this conversation to the next level, and create momentum for change, we need a story that clarifies for people why raising the minimum wage is good for all of us. Fortunately, we have that story.

Our research finds that we can succeed by having a conversation that avoids the current dynamic that pits business against workers. We need a conversation that is focused not on what businesses need, or on what individuals need, but on what all of us and our economy need.

To create a new common sense on the issue, we need to connect the decisions businesses make with the consequences for all of us – workers, families, communities, and our economy.

The most effective organizing idea for this new conversation is that we simply can’t sustain our economy or our communities, with jobs that fail to compensate adequately. These economy-busting jobs are stalling our economy and our communities. Increasing the minimum wage boosts communities and the overall economy by providing more Americans with income to spend on the basics.

A variety of points help to support and flesh out this core idea.

  • It helps to draw a distinction between “economy-boosting” and “economy-busting” jobs – clear and memorable terms that help people focus on the core issue.
  • “Affording the basics” means spending on things like food, doctor visits, or necessary repairs; using these words and others clarifies for people exactly how little some jobs are paying.
  • The solution is to “lift the wage and benefits floor” – a simple and vivid image that helps people quickly grasp the policy solution.
  • Explaining what prevents better compensation is also helpful. The idea that “profitable corporations are using their power and influence to hold down compensation” helps people see the current state of affairs as intentional, not unavoidable.
  • When appropriate, it is helpful to explain to people that the minimum wage is so low, that many people with full-time jobs qualify for food stamps and other public assistance. This comparison powerfully illustrates what it really means to be working and poor.
  • People don’t blame the worker; they turn their anger toward the employer, and the policy that allows it to happen.
  • Finally, including a role for citizens in the conversation reinforces intentionality: we have the power to create the economy and quality of life we want.

Here’s just one example of language that helps shift people’s perspectives:

Economists sometimes talk about the need for economy-boosting jobs. These are jobs where people make enough money to maintain the basic spending levels that keep the economy and communities going. If people can’t spend on basics like food, repairs, and so on, the economy stalls. 

And here’s an example that brings in even more of the points:

Our government has a specific role when it comes to the job market: to maintain a “wage and benefits floor.” Powerful corporations actively use their influence to hold down wages and benefits, but if jobs don’t compensate enough to maintain “Basic Spending” levels – on things like food, getting things repaired, and so on, the economy stalls. Wages are so low that millions of full time workers are below the poverty line and qualify for food stamps. Policies to raise the wage and benefits floor and restore basic spending will boost the economy. For example, to regain our prosperity, people can insist on increasing the minimum wage.

Why does this approach have such power?

First, it’s simple. It clarifies the economic problem. Instead of wallowing in an overwhelming array of economic worries including unemployment, a roller coaster stock market, inequality, deficits, and so on, it offers a simple picture of an economic dynamic we can understand and do something about.

More broadly, it provides a new explanation for how the economy really works. The economy we care about is the one that affects people’s wallets, and it is whether jobs make it possible for people to support their families that drives the economy. This idea ties the fate of low-wage workers to the fate of us all. When they hear that a higher floor lifts families, as well as communities and our economy, people can readily see how policies like increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid sick time will improve quality of life and economic circumstances for us all. It sets the stage for a conversation about inequality and distribution of wealth, by clearly illustrating why we’re all better off when those with less, have more.

Finally, this conversation is a very values-based conversation. It taps into beliefs about how work should be valued and how people with jobs should be able to support themselves and their families. And it reinforces interdependence – we sink or swim together.

We need every ally to rally around these culture-shifting ideas and proactively push them into public discourse. Culture change doesn’t happen by accident; it happens when a catalyst sparks new thinking, which advocates can encourage.

As a basic approach for organizing our communications, the idea that we can’t sustain our communities and the economy on low-wage jobs is a simple, common sense explanation of why job quality policies matter to us all. Most important, it is a big idea that accomplishes a number of important goals:

  • It brings new supporters to the cause with a helpful new perspective that competes with the idea that businesses can’t afford to do more.
  • For those who are already sympathetic, it provides practical as well as humanitarian reasons to make the case.
  • Finally, it offers everyone a clear and memorable way to summarize why the issue matters. With a topic as complex as jobs and the economy, this is critical.

About the Research

Policy campaigns are often won (or lost) because of the underlying assumptions and understandings that people bring to the debate in the first place.

When it comes to jobs, there are fundamental, core beliefs people hold that set the foundation for campaigns and legislative battles. These include ideas about work, about the relationship between employers and employees, about what society and government can expect from either one, and so on.

The Ford Foundation asked Topos to research those core beliefs that make it hard for the public to understand the policy solutions that will work and help the cause. Topos spent a year conducting this research, talking with hundreds of people around the country to unearth the hidden obstacles to public support on job quality policies like minimum wage, and to develop a core organizing idea that could overcome these obstacles.

Topos conducted anthropological research in coffee shops, parks, people’s homes and place of work; virtual community forums where people debated ideas online; and conducted talkback tests, where we exposed individual participants to a single idea to determine what sticks and what changes people’s thinking about job policies.

The recommendations above are what we learned from these months of research.

Why previous arguments have fallen short

While we face many obstacles in this conversation, there are some fundamental ideas in public discourse that clearly prevent progress.

When it comes to job policies, people unfortunately often default to viewing the world through the eyes of employers

First, we face a major barrier when the public conversation on jobs is focused primarily on “what business needs”, which is a default way of thinking about minimum wage increases.

Average Americans, whatever their occupation or political orientation, often look at issues from the perspective of an owner trying to maintain a profitable business. When thinking in this way, they make a number of assumptions that undermine our policy goals.

Here’s how people default to thinking about job policy.

From a business perspective, employee compensation is a cost, a burden to business. Any increase in wages, or expansion of work standards such as sick leave, creates an additional strain on business that might harm profitability and even lead to cutbacks or failure.

And if businesses are the source of jobs, it then follows that an employer’s need should trump an employee’s need, because if the employer can’t afford to hire, there are no jobs.

Finally, business executives, as the most knowledgeable about what business needs, are taken as the authority on this topic.

The result is that even people who are sympathetic to workers’ interests often feel there is no choice but to give business what they want. This frame, advanced by the opposition, and readily embraced by most Americans, is a powerful, common sense idea — and therefore a powerful obstacle that advocates must find a way to diminish.

After the situation has been reframed in terms of basic spending and economy-boosting jobs, however, the problem for businesses is no longer that their wages are too high, but rather that demand is too low, because too many low-wage, economy-busting jobs mean fewer customers.

Other patterns of thinking are equally entrenched and unhelpful to promoting a more progressive conversation. For example, one very common pattern is to focus on what individuals need.

Focusing on struggling individuals and families creates different barriers

When looking at these issues through the perspective of an individual, people think about the ways in which each of us has to navigate the work world, and they don’t consider ways to change the work world. The lens on the individual obscures the broader systemic issues, and the collective solutions.

Furthermore, when focused on the individual, it is quite logical to view the issue this way.

Not all jobs can be great jobs.

Everyone starts out at the entry-level, and has to move up in the work world. It is inevitable that there will be a hierarchy of jobs.

If a person is unsuccessful in the work world it is due to bad choices or a character flaw.

The apparent solution, in this way of thinking, is for each individual to get the education to be able to advance. While progressives of course support increased opportunities for education, we also want to lift all jobs, and reject the notion that some jobs need to pay poverty level compensation.

Finally, though people recognize that economic conditions matter, a whole range of anti-poor stereotypes continue to persist. That is why it is relatively easy to trigger the idea that if a person is unsuccessful in the work world it is due to bad choices or a character flaw.

On the other hand, a businessperson can be a very compelling authority on the role of increased wages in boosting demand at small business. This is a far more effective approach than having a business person talk about how higher wages can help retain good employees (which people assume a smart business person would do anyway).

These themes allow advocates for increasing minimum wage to play offense for a change, insisting that these policies will boost our economy, instead of the defensive stance we so often have on these issues that it won’t “hurt business”. (When we raise this issue, we’re stuck fighting our way out of the opponent’s frame on minimum wage, not a place where we get much traction. Even when we offer new data and research, people tend to ignore us because they’ve already reached a conclusion about the minimum wage increases from a business operator’s perspective.)

In conclusion, the idea that we can’t sustain our communities and the economy on low-wage jobs is a simple, common sense explanation of why job quality policies matter to us all. Most important, as way of organizing our communications on minimum wage research and policy, it is an idea that accomplishes a number of important goals:

  • It brings new supporters to the cause with a helpful new perspective that competes with the idea that businesses can’t afford to do more.
  • For those who are already sympathetic, it provides practical as well as humanitarian reasons to make the case.
  • Finally, it offers everyone a clear and memorable way to summarize why the issue matters. With a topic as complex as jobs and the economy, this is critical.

Labor Day Boost

Happy Labor Day! Celebrate economy-boosting jobs with our new video.

This “Simply-Put” video provides a brief illustration of how to make the core points emerging from newly released Topos research on communicating job quality, including minimum wage and paid sick days. We expect this video will be a great tool for sharing the research findings with colleagues, field staff, supporters, and others. It’s a terrific way to start a conversation – or to wrap up a presentation about building support for job quality initiatives. Check it out! And then read more about our findings.


New Job Quality Research Findings Build on Recent Success

Advocates and strategists around the country have achieved some recent successes on a range of job quality policies – especially higher minimum wages and guaranteed paid sick days. From one perspective, these successes indicate the potential to “turn the corner” on job quality debates, and achieve long-term improvements.

On the other hand, people involved in these struggles tell us that the battles are often fought “uphill” against stubborn resistance of various kinds – not just from self-interested industry opponents, but also from decision-makers and the public.

In a multi-phase research effort over the past year, the Topos Partnership has explored Americans’ thinking about these aspects of job quality, and ways of creating more support for policies that would improve our labor market.

In the course of this research we identified a set of persistent, broadly shared ideas in public discourse that can derail conversation about job quality policies, and have developed a practical communications framework that helps people think more constructively about the relationship between jobs, people, corporate actions and the economy.

Our intention was to help communicators in a number of ways:

  • Persuade some who are currently not on our side
  • Increase the confidence of people who are on our side
  • Offer decision-makers models of how to talk persuasively
  • Tie a number of issues together
  • Create a new common sense.

The Problem

Research with a diverse group of hundreds of Americans established that a handful of strong, default perspectives – that collectively feel like “the common sense” on the issue – often undermine support for job quality policies, even among progressive audiences. Importantly, each of these perspectives is based on (partial) truth, and is therefore reinforced by experience and can seem undeniable.

Two of the strongest default perspectives related to job quality focus, respectively, on what businesses need, and what individuals need. Opponents of the job quality agenda typically emphasize the former, while supporters often emphasize the latter.

The Topos research found that to succeed at important framing goals – including broadening the base of support and offering sympathetic audiences more compelling ways of thinking and talking about the topic – it is helpful to focus on a different set of needs: namely what we (collectively), our economy and our communities need. Essentially, to counter the argument that economic success depends on giving business what it wants, we need to reframe the idea of how the economy works. Rather than focus on either individuals or business, this focus ties the two together in a helpful way.

The following core story effectively reframes job quality topics in a way that shifts thinking and engages new support.

If jobs don’t pay enough for workers to afford the basics, the economy slows down. Profitable companies could compensate better but choose not to.

The essential contrast boils down to a choice between “economy-boosting” and “economy-busting” jobs. Some advocates have used versions of this organizing idea for a while now. Our research confirms the effectiveness of the frame for building broad support and new understanding among the public, and provides essential new points like the value of explaining that jobs need to provide enough for “the basics” — food, repairs, clothing, and more.

Conclusion – a “Big Idea”

Importantly, we set out to identify framing that can help not just with one or two specific policies, but promotes new attitudes toward the broader idea of improving jobs for all workers in our economy.

The recommendation is effective at this level, but goes even further. In the end, it offers an alternative common sense about how our economy works, what kind of economy we want and need, and how to achieve it.

If communicators succeed in conveying this vision – of a society that thrives when everyone has the means and the security to maintain spending on the basics – a lot of our policy debates will be less difficult in the future.

Behind the Kitchen Door

Congratulations to Saru Jayaraman for a successful launch of her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door.  We’re proud to stand with Saru in bringing public attention to the shameful $2.13 tipped minimum wage that undercuts workers, communities and the economy.

Responding to the “Job Killer” Allegation

Everyone knows the simple rule about repetition being key to changing public understanding. Here’s a new finding about the framing of government policy that researchers and advocates need to consider: The  number of news stories using the phrase  “job killer” about a policy idea increased significantly between 1984 and 2011.

A new study, “Job Killers” in the News: Allegations without Verification, by Professors Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher R. Martin of the University of Northern Iowa, revealed that  “job killer” allegations were targeted at policies to safeguard consumers, protect the environment, raise wages, expand health insurance coverage, increase taxes on the wealthy, and make workplaces safer.

Most troubling is the study’s finding that in 92% of the stories alleging that a government policy was a “job killer,” the news media failed to cite any evidence for this claim.

“It would be fair to say this tax increase on job creators [proposed by the Obama Administration in order to pay for the Jobs Bill] is the kind of proposal both parties have opposed in the past,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. …

The oil and gas industry, housing industry, and charitable services sector are among those lining up to argue that these tax increases will endanger hundreds of thousands of jobs. They would result in the slashing of 200,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. “It will be a terrible hit to an industry this country needs dearly to drive up revenue, jobs and energy security.”

Republicans Warn Obama Tax Hikes Will Kill Jobs” By Michelle Hirsch, The Fiscal Times, September 13, 2011

Communicators who support any proposals to increase public revenue, by whatever means, are likely to come up against the opposition argument that the measures in question will “kill jobs.”

But while this argument is applied to virtually any tax proposal, it may be advanced most vigorously when it comes to taxes on businesses, or even a reduction in subsidies to businesses, which are bemoaned as job-killing “tax increases.” (E.g. see oil industry responses like the one cited above.)

In the face of this argument, how can communicators successfully promote increased business taxes as a reasonable and important component of our nation’s revenue strategy? Topos’ recent memo on the “Tax Shift” frame (“How the ‘Tax Shift’ Idea Can Promote Greater Revenue and More Progressive Taxation,” by the Topos Partnership for the Ford Foundation, October 2011) explains that a wide range of Americans can be engaged by a narrative that clarifies how corporations and the wealthy have successfully evaded tax-paying responsibilities over the past several decades, shifting tax responsibility to the rest of us. This strategy is broadly effective for promoting a return to a more reasonable distribution of the load we must collectively carry, for our own wellbeing. But what are communicators’ best responses to the direct and seemingly sensible argument that when companies pay more in taxes, they are able to employ fewer people?

This short memo begins with a review of some of the key “common sense” perceptions communicators are up against followed by recommended, tested responses to both defend against the Job Killer attack and promote a new perspective that inoculates against its effectiveness.

(The research effort took place in April through June of 2011 and included a set of in-depth, one-on-one telephone interviews (“cognitive elicitations”); focus groups in Richmond, VA and Minneapolis, MN; and “talkback” testing in which individuals hear a single brief message and are then asked a series of questions assessing their ability to remember, explain and reason in terms of a key idea, as well as its effects on their thinking about the topic.)

Up Against Current “Common Sense”

The good news about the “job killer” argument is that people are unlikely to bring up this point on their own, when presented with the general idea of tax increases, for instance. Even though industry spokespeople and their government allies make this point often and forcefully, it is not a top of mind point for average Americans. They are much more sensitive to the effects of taxes on individual and family budgets.

On the other hand, communicators trying to promote increased (direct or indirect) taxes on businesses are up against a set of related perceptions that feel like “common sense,” including the following:

Taking tax money out of private hands slows spending and therefore the economy

This idea was repeated often in all phases of the research. Taxes result in less money to spend. In particular, individuals spend less on things like restaurants, clothes, travel, etc. In short, taxes are an expense, not a source of benefits.

Okay, you’ve taxed and built a road and a school, but now this guy that makes 50 a year doesn’t have it to buy a newer car . . . There’s only so much money being made, so every dollar is taken out of somebody’s pocket is not being spent somewhere else.

52-year old moderate man, Alabama

A minority of research participants also noted that businesses that are taxed more heavily may spend less on hiring and purchasing.

We can put more money in our pockets and spend it how we want, and start the economy again by allowing businesses to hire more because they have more.

27-year old conservative Republican, Illinois

Businesses create jobs, with little or no involvement of government.

A widespread default view of the economy holds that healthy businesses produce jobs. Government spending, on the other hand, results in government jobs (especially bureaucrats and politicians) as well as handouts for the poor and unemployed. Leaving as much money as possible in the hands of businesses therefore makes sense as a way of promoting job growth.

If you want a business to hire some folks, don’t cause their bottom line to go up because if it goes up, they are going to be cutting costs as opposed to adding more employees.

Richmond Man

The wealthy create jobs because they use their money to invest in businesses.

While people may dismiss the phrase “trickle down economy” as a flawed philosophy, their thinking continues to be shaped by the idea that wealthy people create jobs by investing in business. “Job Creators” is another way of reinforcing a trickle-down approach.

The top wage earners and top people in the country that are making the most money will spend more money in the economy. I believe they will reinvest, that they will buy and invest in companies that will employ people and that will build our tax base and therefore that will provide more federal and state income tax. They do give back to the economy.

Minneapolis Man

Taxing businesses higher motivates them to leave (the state, the country).

For many people, this is a familiar and convincing downside to taxes. Because people think about taxes as an expense rather than a source of benefits, it makes perfect sense that businesses will try to reduce their costs by keeping taxes to a minimum, even relocating their operations.

Importantly, this is a concern for people whether they are receptive or hostile toward taxes in general.

We need to keep corporations here for jobs that we really need but we do not want to raise their taxes too high that they will prefer to go to another country.

40-year old liberal woman, Massachusetts

The bottom line is that while Americans tend not to think spontaneously about the “job killing” effects of business taxes, or taxes in general, the idea is a good enough fit with the rest of their “common sense” perspectives that it risks becoming a default perspective.

Defense: Defeating the “Job Killer” argument

Fortunately, the research shows that it is possible to defeat the “job killer” idea with different explanations that fit just as well with common sense.

More specifically, people respond very well to explanations that point out why taxes don’t in fact have much to do with companies’ hiring decisions. The research identified three different points that are effective.

Hiring is driven by consumer demand.

Companies hire when demand dictates that they need to produce more products or provide more service. People are quite willing to disconnect taxes from hiring decisions once they see things from the company’s point of view in this way.

Sample language:

Businesses hire employees for only one reason – because there is consumer demand for their goods and services. They hire when they think an extra employee can help them make more money. According to many business owners, the percentage of taxes paid is an insignificant factor, so the idea that taxes lead to fewer jobs just isn’t true.

Cutting their taxes doesn’t save them any more money to create more jobs . . . [As] business owners said about job creation: it all boils down to increased demand for their products.

48-year old moderate woman, North Carolina


Tax hikes don’t affect our unemployment rate . . . Taxes don’t affect how a business does. Demand for the product and willingness of consumers to shop does.

27-year old moderate woman, Kentucky


Taxes and employment costs are costs of doing business. Despite what the taxes on business may be, so long as there is a demand for a product, then business will go and provide that product. It’s a false argument to claim that to increase taxes would be bad to business.

45-year old conservative man, New York

Hiring practices are driven by the search for profits

People are very willing to accept the common-sense idea that companies hire when hiring will help them increase overall profit and “grow the pie.”

Sample language:

Talk to actual businesspeople and you’ll find that tax rates don’t go into their hiring decisions. Why? Because businesses hire workers to grow the “profit pie.” The fact that they have to give away a slice of the profit pie (as taxes) doesn’t change that logic. Businesses still want to grow overall profits – and will hire workers if they need to.

Higher taxes on companies don’t mean fewer jobs. Businesses hire in order to make more money.

72-year old moderate woman, California


Businesses who want to expand will do so regardless of higher taxes. Expanding their “pie” will mean paying more in taxes, but most likely not a higher percentage.

21-year old conservative woman, Wisconsin


Companies still want to make money and will still hire people to make that money regardless of the taxes.

41-year old moderate woman, Wisconsin

Historically, high taxes haven’t killed jobs.

Not only are people willing to accept this point, but they often go further and add that, conversely, low taxes have historically failed to create jobs. (“Been there, done that.”)

Sample language

Companies are crying wolf when they complain that higher taxes will cost jobs. The fact is that corporate taxes, as a percentage of the economy, are only about a quarter of what they were in prosperous times a generation or two ago. In the fifties and sixties, companies didn’t have so many ways of avoiding taxes, and they were still able to employ enough people to keep a booming economy going.

Raising taxes is not always a bad thing. In the 60s this was not a problem and businesses were still booming. This tax money would be used to do important things.

36-year old conservative man, New Jersey


They say that jobs will decrease but it’s not true. They would still flourish as they did years ago, before tax cuts became so abused.

40-year old conservative woman, Texas


Massive tax savings accrued by businesses has not generated job growth.

31-year old independent woman, Illinois


Offense: Pivoting to the Tax Shift frame

Rebutting the “job killer” argument is an important part of making the case for higher corporate taxes, but communicators also need to change the terms of the debate by helping people understand that tax responsibilities have shifted in the wrong direction.

Our research confirms that the following is an effective “organizing idea” for creating more constructive conversations about collecting revenue:

The Tax Shift From Corporations and the Wealthy to the Rest of Us

In recent decades, corporations and the wealthy have paid a smaller and smaller proportion for the things we need, and taxes have shifted to average Americans and small businesses.

This is an idea that is currently missing in public discourse, that sticks with people, that they find compelling, that helps people reason about other points, and that inclines people, including many conservatives, to believe that we actually need to get more revenue. The following brief text illustrates one way to express the point in a coherent and compelling narrative:

One of the most dramatic changes in the US economy in the last 40 years has been what’s called the Great Tax Shift. For instance, thanks to decades of lobbying for cuts and loopholes, large corporations today pay half of what they used to in taxes. Since we still need to pay for the things that our prosperity rests on, like education, infrastructure, etc., the Tax Shift really means that more taxes have been shifted onto regular people or small businesses, or else we have created deficits. Shifting Taxes back to where they were before, when profitable corporations and the super rich paid their share, would mean we can start paying for our needs again, rather than borrowing to pay for them. 

(For more on the Tax Shift frame see “How the ‘Tax Shift’ Idea Can Promote Greater Revenue and More Progressive Taxation,” by the Topos Partnership for the Ford Foundation, October 2011.)

Depending on the audience and the speaker, advocates can connect the Job Killer frame to the Tax Shift frame in one of several ways, along a continuum of rhetorical aggressiveness. At the “soft” end, communicators can treat the Shift point as simply more solid and factual than the Job Killer “theory” – e.g.:

The theory that taxes kill jobs is pretty debatable. Here are X reasons why most economists don’t buy it… While we might not agree about how valid that theory is, what we can agree on is the fact that there’s been a huge shift in who pays our taxes, from big corporations to ordinary people. Let me give you some numbers: …

Somewhat more aggressively, communicators might suggest that the “job killer” argument is a deliberate ploy to help accomplish the tax shift away from corporations – e.g.:

The idea that taxes kill jobs is just propaganda that no serious economist or even corporate CEO believes. The agenda behind the mantra is to keep shifting responsibility for actually paying taxes from Big Corporations onto regular people.

Big corporations need roads, electricity, an educated workforce, healthcare, government-funded science research, and a strong military as much as anyone. They just want you to pay for it.


Advocates regularly cite the “job killer” frame as an obstacle to progress on revenue and other policies. They are rightfully concerned that the threat of eliminating jobs, once uttered, can derail constructive conversation with the public or even with leaders, who are particularly concerned about appearing not to prioritize employment and economic prosperity in these tough economic times.

The research conducted for this project demonstrates that average Americans are receptive to common sense arguments about why policies, including taxes on businesses, are not in fact job killers. If advocates approach their work with the understanding that they must fight common sense with better common sense, they can make a confident case in favor of new tax and other policies that are critically needed.

Strategies for Debt Ceiling Talk and a Deficit of Understanding

From House Speaker Boehner’s warnings about the next debt ceiling debate to Mitt Romney’s addition of a debt clock prop to his campaign events, conservatives have signaled that they intend to make the federal deficit and government spending the focus of their economic message.

In this short strategy memo, Topos offers advice for how progressives can blunt this attack, and help Americans understand why government spending is necessary to economic recovery.