The Center on Budget & Policy Priorities is an unusual organization. Located in Washington, D.C., the group researches and analyzes how government decisions will affect the poor and deeply poor. Its goal is to shape the debate on fiscal and tax policies that touch the lives of people in the U.S. who are struggling to survive.
The D.C. Center coordinates the State Priorities Partnership, a group of forty one state-level organizations working to promote broad prosperity across the nation. The Partnership member in Boston is the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center which focuses on data specific to the people of my former home state.
I have been working with the Washington and Boston centers for nearly a decade to help their analysts speak more confidently and convincingly. Not only do they present to legislators, but also to the media, to board members, to local activists, to religious organizations, and to groups of young people interested in government.
Early this September, I met with new staff from the state groups who were in Washington, D.C. for a week of training. I followed that up with a workshop for the team in Boston. Every time I work with these two groups, I learn shocking details about what is happening to the people on the lowest economic rungs of our country. I also learn shocking details about how the 1% continues to gain dominance of the economic picture.
I was coaching a young man from Louisiana, one of five states that has no minimum wage law. He had the requisite PowerPoint slides showing the timeline of the federal minimum wage, a comparison to other states’ minimum wage requirements, the economic growth indicators of states with higher minimum wage requirements, the population breakdown of who is most likely to be earning minimum wage.
Of course, the numbers are important. For example, in Louisiana the greatest percentage of minimum wage earners are women of color, typically raising children as single parents. But how does that become real for the audience? What is it like to work forty hours a week at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour; to feed, clothe and send kids to school on $290 a week (what some people pay to get a hair cut); to work a full time job and still be at the federal poverty level of $15,000 year? I asked him to put a face to the numbers. Create a person with a name and an age and her kids with names and ages and all of them with hopes and dreams. Let us feel what it’s like for this woman to work as hard as she can and still need public assistance.
In Massachusetts, there is no law protecting a worker who needs to take time off because he or she is too sick to work or because it is necessary take care of a sick child or parent. One in three workers do not have access to “earned paid sick time” and could be fired for missing work to get well or to care for a family member. A newly hired analyst was preparing to speak on this topic to the board of the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. It would be her first introduction to a team of community leaders, academics, and former elected officials. Despite her education and polish, she was exceptionally nervous.
So out came the PowerPoint slides comparing various factors of economic growth in states that do have this kind of protection for workers to states that don’t. The comparative costs to the health care system when workers use emergency room services because they cannot make a workday appointment with a clinic or a doctor. She got more and more nervous as more and more slides came up, losing track of what she really wanted to say. Great data, but….
I asked her if she knew anyone who had been in this kind of situation. She paused. Her eyes got wide and she took a few big gulps of air. Then she told the story of her own mother, a Cuban immigrant to Boston, a single parent, who worked three jobs in order to provide for her daughter. She told of how her mom was too scared to take a day off for fear she’d lose her job. She told of how she would have to go to school when she was sick because there was no one to take care of her. Her voice grew strong and her confidence bloomed as she was telling this story. The data became an afterthought; she had lived this. We got it.
Another woman was preparing to speak on a panel at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank dedicated to the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and individual freedom. The topic of discussion was “corporate inversion.” She was an expert on this. She knew the regulations inside and out. She was ready to debate the four other panel members, who were all male, ultra-conservative pro-corporate speakers. After she practiced her opening remarks outlining the regulations, I reminded her that, other than the four panel members, the rest of the audience members wouldn’t be experts in the field. Why not turn “corporate inversion” into a story.
Which she did: the story of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. It purchases a small company in London. It merges with that company so that headquarters can now be located in the UK. It then outsources all of its income to offshore tax havens, which is legal under UK law. Pfizer’s worldwide tax rate drops to to zero. Yet Pfizer employs tens of thousands of people in the United States, working in research, manufacturing and distribution. The corporation uses the roads, schools, police, firefighters, clean air, clean water, and all the other government infrastructure that our taxes fund. Yet it pays no taxes at all to the United States. I could now understand the issue, as could the bigger audience she was trying to reach.
Finding the right story, whether a hypothetical example, a personal journey, or a corporate history, is an essential part of persuasive speaking. But there is more to this story than that. On my last day at the Boston center, a presenter was speaking about state taxes. Although many people call Massachusetts “Tax-achusetts,” it actually ranks near the middle of all the states for combined state and local taxes. My new home state of Oregon, which has no sales tax, ranks lower.
I said, “This is causing them real problems in funding basic services.” A member of the team said, “You mean causing us real problems.” I replied, “I meant the government.” He smiled at me and said, “We are the government.”
I got it. He wasn’t talking about the data analysts at the center. He was talking about each of us. We are the government.
I know that it feels hopeless when decisions made in Washington seem so out-of-touch with the reality of life. Or when we are so busy making ends meet ourselves that time to focus on policy change appears impossible. But there are things that we can do. You don’t have to use official channels. You can help someone to present more clearly and persuasively about things that matter politically. You can seal envelopes for or donate money to an organization. You can speak up in a school board meeting. You can make sure that you are informed. You can read and study and listen. Engage in conversation. Join. Canvas. Vote.
Remember, we are government for the people, by the people and OF the people.