Category Archives: Frames and Framing

The Language of Austerity: ‘Working Poor’

Amidst all the debates about austerity, debt and stimulus packages, albeit rarely spoken about explicitly, lie notions of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ people, whether they be poor, unemployed or otherwise. These ‘values’ lie below the surface when such words are not actually mentioned.

Notions of deserving and undeserving poor have enabled other people, i.e. those with decent incomes, to ignore and/or complain about the ‘undeserving’ while bestowing ‘charity’ upon those deemed more ‘deserving’. The latter, in turn, who are expected to demonstrate ‘gratitude’ for whatever handouts are provided. (What is missing is the recognition of the system as having any role in all of this, which, as you know, is ridiculous.)

One term that has not received a lot of attention, at least to my own knowledge, is that of ‘working poor’. The term itself appears to reinforce the notion that the poor do not ‘work’, hence the adjective. Although redundancy in language use is rather common (i.e. adding an adjective or adverb where one is not needed), the more formal use of this phrase is not yet redundant, though perhaps becoming more so. That is, work has ceased to be a way out of poverty for an increasing number of people in most Anglophone countries (of the North Atlantic) at least (since their political parties of the centre and right (aka neoliberal and neoconservative) share similar approaches to work, austerity and welfare). Of course, many probably still believe the idea that a job — any job — will get you out of poverty. It takes time to change (so-called) ‘common sense’, but it does change.

While the notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were linguistic counterparts to the social-economic structure of 19th century society, with the arrival of the ‘working poor’ as a significant albeit still minor portion of the working population, the ‘poor house’ is no longer a necessity. Instead, of course, we have prisons to replace the 19th century ‘workhouse’ and post-secondary education increasingly becomes a ‘holding tank’ for the ‘other-wise’ unemployed and enable the building up of debt for young people to ensure they are forever ‘working poor’ (youth unemployment rates in Canada and Europe are at their highest levels in decades). (When students are working part-time or in summers during their post-secondary education, they are more hopeful that such a situation is only temporary and will be quickly rectified once they graduate — and, as such, they are also less likely to want to organize and fight back against bad employers.)

An important counterpart of ‘working poor’ is ‘being poor’ or the fact that, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba pointed out a couple of years ago, it takes ‘all day to be poor’. That is, what people who have never been poor, or never been on welfare or unemployment benefit/employment insurance, don’t understand, is the amount of work that you have to put in to deal with just the everyday realities of living on next to nothing.

(http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-it-takes-all-day-be-poor)

Postscript: I forgot to add that ‘poor’ can also be read as an adverb for ‘working’ or as an adjective for ‘working’ as a noun, whereby the emphasis (in speech is on the ‘working’) also indicates a development as being poor at working or most likely working but poor. This latter emphasis is also a result,  not only of working at minimum wage or at wages below the ‘Low Income Cut-off’ or ‘poverty line’, but also when employers refuse to pay you your wages or delay your pay: i.e. ‘wage theft’. But, that is another issue for another time.

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Filed under Frames and Framing, Language, Politics, Poverty, Wages, Welfare, Work and working conditions

The ‘difficult task’ in the language of cuts

Following various links to stories, I came across one on the CBC News website entitled: ‘Clement prepared for difficult Treasury Board post’ (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2011/05/19/ottawa-clement-treasury-board-public-service.html).

The audio clip on the left-hand side, below the headline, is captioned: ‘Clement prepared for difficult cuts’.

This is the language of (public – and private – sector) cuts. It is always a ‘difficult task’ and it is almost always written in the passive voice, as if they (the people taking the actions) have ‘no choice’ and are acting almost as if they are compelled to do so in a manner in which they would not have otherwise acted (unless, of course, compelled to).

However, this is incorrect. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has pointed out (http://rabble.ca/news/2011/06/federal-budget-set-unleash-significant-program-spending-cuts-ccpa), there are alternatives to the Conservatives’ proposed budget (cuts). None of what is taking place needs to take place; it is a conscious choice, a deliberative act on the part of people with the power to act.

Indeed, it is part of the Harper Conservative government agenda (it is not a ‘hidden’ agenda so much as one they have tried to hide behind various types of ‘spin’ and manipulation of language, such as the idea that this budget was the same as the one in March, which the CCPA quite rightly pointed out was not true!).

Discussions more generally in mainstream mass media usually write or speak of economies or economics in terms associated with ‘nature’. Humans, you see, are not able to control nature because it is a ‘force’ beyond human control (pay close attention to the next business or economic news story that you see and see what kinds of metaphors they use). It is what corporate elites and their politicians want you to think because it also has the added bonus (for them) of explaining away how they have to make those cuts (that you feel, but not them) (you know, before they hit that ‘debt wall’).

The use of language leads us to the frames and framing. Whoever frames the question, will force the answer – if not the one they want, then the answer they want you to give.

N.B.: At many mainstream media outlets, I should point out, journalists are being compelled to produce more stories with fewer resources (and time!) and therefore will fall back on convention and what they have been taught or learned. This doesn’t make it right, but perhaps journalists may be compelled to respond to people complaining to their editors (appointed by owners and who usually have the last word!) about the language used.

Also, another useful strategy might be to ask yourself, how else might that phrase be written? ‘Clement will make cuts that will make public sector employees lives worse’; OR ‘Clement relishes wielding power to carry out his ideological beliefs in small government’; OR ‘Clement relishes chance to squeeze the middle class’.

Frankly, I do not believe that the people making these ‘difficult cuts’ feel any of the ‘pain’ that the rest of us do. Otherwise, why would they (especially the Conservatives and their corporate allies) spend so much money on advertisements and spin trying to cover it up or make it appear different to the way it is? (Or try to get you to turn on other people who are a wee bit worse off than you are!)

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Filed under Democracy, Economics, Frames and Framing, Journalism, Language, News, Parliament, Politics, Uncategorized