What's Wrong with Worthiness? And Other Framing Dilemmas...

By Nat Kendall-Taylor    March 1, 2016

What do the phrases working families, low-wage earners, on the path to self-sufficiency, and building financial stability have in common?

One similarity is that they are all terms that the human services sector frequently uses to describe the benefits, and beneficiaries, of public programs. They also all assert the worthiness of recipients by foregrounding the efforts of individuals and families to engage in the workforce—and probably reflect human service professionals' attempt to push back against the widespread myth that recipients of public assistance are unwilling or "too lazy" to work. Perhaps most importantly, each of these statements shares similar effects on public thinking. According to research we recently conducted at the FrameWorks Institute, these terms are likely to reinforce two key public assumptions: 1) that financial problems are caused by and solved at the individual level and 2) that the field of human services is "about" financial assistance.

These phrases are worth rethinking, because they shape a way of thinking about human services that conflicts with how those in the sector see their work. Those working in the field see human services as a set of comprehensive and holistic supports that promote health and well-being for many kinds of people at every stage of life. But using the assumptions brought to mind by "low-wage earners" or "working families," the public thinks about human services as temporary income supports for a limited group of people who are, through their own failures, unable to meet their needs.

This is a prime example of the way that issue-framing shapes the policies and programs we enact. As long as advocates for human services continue to communicate within the "worthiness" frame, the sector's status and funding will remain at risk, and insufficient to support a robust sector that not only provides services, but also conducts research and advocates for systemic improvement. If problems are framed at the individual level, and worthiness and effort are advanced as the reasons people are deserving of support, our shared responsibility toward our fellow citizens is reduced to charity. What's more, when a person's worthiness is the issue, it's simply too easy to raise the bar for who deserves assistance, and for how long.

Shifting the narrative we tell, and that the public hears, is the major reframing challenge that lies before the human services sector.

In a comprehensive Strategic Frame Analysis of human services, researchers at the FrameWorks Institute have explored this and other challenges and have developed framing strategies to address them. This investigation was sponsored by the National Human Services Assembly and was designed to figure out how, after a decade of deep cuts, the field could rebuild support for its work. With generous support from the Kresge and the Annie E. Casey Foundations, this work has led to the development of the Building Well-Being Narrative.

This narrative offers clear recommendations for how to talk about human services, prescribing specific values that establish why human services matter to society and explanatory tools such as metaphors and examples to help people understand how the sector works and build public support—and political will. The analysis of frames to avoid, and what to leave unsaid, is a vital component of this project and a key strategic tool for communicators.

The sector has begun to embrace this narrative more and more. Since its release, this strategy has shaped the announcements of major policy initiatives and popped up in major newspaper opinion pages. It's this steady drip, drip, drip of messaging that allows this way of thinking to permeate public consciousness.

About the Author

Nat Kendall-Taylor

FrameWorks Institute

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