Talking About the Minimum Wage

by Robert Kraig, executive director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin

Welcome to the latest edition of the Progress Points Message Blog.

With Representative Melissa Sargent introducing aspirational legislation for a $15 minimum wage this week, this is a good time to discuss how to best talk about policies to raise the wage floor.

In earlier Progress Points Message Blogs I made the case that progressives have been losing the economic debate to conservatives since the 1970s.

In another blog I argued the underlying conceptual metaphors progressives often use to describe the economy, a force of nature or a body, undercuts understanding that the economy is shaped by human agency (i.e government policy). Drawing on the work of Anat Shenker-Osorio, describing the economy either as a moving vehicle that must be driven by people, or as a building that is constructed by humans, is critically important to broadening support for a bold progressive economic agenda.

One of the things we can do to drive the economy in the right direction is to raise the wage floor, hence the burgeoning movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage and Rep. Sargent’s bill. However the issue has many twists, turns and roadblocks.

Topos Partnership, discussed in an early Progress Points Message Blog on privatization, provides very helpful guidance.

Topos undertook over a year of ethnographic opinion research to develop a simple and compelling conceptual model of the economy. We will talk about conceptual models often in this blog. They are simplified representations of complex systems that can be repeated over and over again to build the kind of public understanding needed to achieve fundamental reforms. Conservatives are very good at developing and repeating conceptual models that support their issue positions, progressives are not. Conceptual models are closely related to conceptual metaphors, but are not tied to only one comparison.

The field research done by Topos found that economic controversies often are framed from the perspective of “what business needs,” which undermines the progressive position before advocates can even make their case. The business perspective, repeated over and over again by conservatives and unwitting Democrats, stands in for a common good economic argument because it is assumed from the beginning that what is good for business is good for the economy, and therefore for everyone.  As Topos puts it, “The result is that people who are sympathetic to workers’ interests often feel there is no choice but to give business what they want.”

This is the underlying case Scott Walker makes for his failed economic development agency, WEDC, which simply seeks to help business and assumes that will lead to good results for workers. The challenge is that, due to conservative domination of the debate, this is now economic common sense for large swaths of the general public and for opinion leaders, even many Democratic elected officials.

While most progressives would readily agree that the “what business needs” conceptual model is damaging, Topos also finds that framing from the needs of individual workers and their families is also damaging (this is the dominant argument made by progressive advocates for raising the minimum wage). Topos research establishes that this triggers judgements about people’s individual life courses and harmful stereotypes about the poor, rather than support for changing the economy as a whole. Crucially, Topos finds that individual stories that are not framed in terms of the broader economic system often cause audiences to make character judgements about the individuals rather than support system-level reform.

The research is similar to earlier health care message research by the Herndon Alliance which showed that shocking health care stories often prompt audiences to want to “fix the person” instead of “fixing the system.”

As an alternative, Topos proposes a broader conceptual model of what is best for the economy as a whole. The model provides a simple way to describe what progressive economists call Keynesian economics, without the theoretical complexity This model better competes with the dominant business-centric frame, and provides reasons that raising the wage floor and creating good jobs will benefit everyone, not only the working poor.

Example: ”. .. 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.”

Topos makes a distinction between “economy busting” and “economy boosting jobs.” The terms broaden out the negative impact of poverty wage jobs and the benefits of good jobs to the whole community. Topos also recommends using the conceptual metaphor of a “wage floor” to explain the public policies that are needed to create “economy boosting jobs.”

As part of this economic-system frame, Topos also recommends using the terms “the basics” in place of other more common phrases like “making ends meet.” The term implies people are not giving up discretionary items, like cell phones, cigarettes, and cable television, but necessities such as food and rent. Different people have different concepts of what the basics are, so the frame is adaptable to many different audiences.

Example: “If people can’t spend on basics like food, repairs, and so on, the economy stalls.”  

The deep opinion research undertaken by Topos also shows that this conceptual model gives voters permission to intervene in the economy, thus helping bridge reservations about the government’s role. Over time if this model is repeated over and over and becomes the new common sense about the economy, it would justify large scale government intervention to raise the wage floor and shape the economy in a way that expands and opens the middle class again. The economy system perspective also inoculates against the belief that business can’t afford higher wages by instilling the idea that there will be more customers if everyone can at least afford the basics.

Overall, the Topos minimum wage model is a step towards a progressive economic message embodied in Paul Wellstone’s aspirational phrase: “We all do better when we all do better.”


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.