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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.

The Power and Pitfalls of Talking Inequality

A new Congressional Budget Office paper reviewing income inequality concludes that the pattern of increasing inequality will continue for years to come — unless we decide to make some policy shifts or there is some other major economic change.

Many advocates will be inclined to reference inequality and this new CBO paper as they promote policy solutions, since it seems to present such a natural news hook for advocates to review and revive policy proposals, such as those that make it easier for employees to stick together in the workplace.

In this essay — part of the Topos Library of articles with framing advice relevant to many issues — the authors (Topos principals Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady) discuss inequality as an organizing idea for communications.

From one point of view, this focus on Inequality is justified and even morally essential. What could be more important than trying to address the many areas in American society where one group is disadvantaged relative to others? Observations about Inequality aren’t just true, they’re also at the heart of many people’s motivation to become involved. Much of the passion that drives activism and advocacy springs from people’s instinctive rejection of Inequality, and their commitment to working against it.

BUT, does a commitment to reducing Inequality mean that we know how to talk about Inequality? Years of research on how Americans understand and talk about social issues suggest that, depending on the audience, discussions of Inequality must overcome important and complex challenges. In fact, the findings show clearly that when we talk directly about Inequality, listeners often take away a message that is the opposite of what we intended, and despite our skill and our good intentions, the discussion can end up doing more harm than good. While there are certainly some audiences that respond exactly as hoped, communications that are targeted at “the general public” can often fall on deaf ears, or worse, when they focus on this theme.

The reasons have partly to do with American assumptions and values – and at an even deeper level, with the (universal) nature of “everyday thinking,” and the mental tools people everywhere use to think about the world.

The authors review a number of pitfalls communicators should try to avoid and offer advocates ways to work toward the goals the they care about while avoiding these unfortunate traps.

Read the rest.