Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004
Karen M. Kaufmann and J. Celeste Lay Karen
Political organizing on behalf of children and the poor is a persistent uphill battle. Since the War on Poverty in the 1960s, federal commitments to programs that enhance youth educational opportunities and health care access have declined or stagnated as a proportion of the federal budget. While the American public voices generic support for vulnerable children, widely held negative stereotypes about poor adults and individualistic explanations for poverty stymie political efforts to create family-friendly initiatives.
Recent and projected levels of foreign immigration indicate that racial and ethnic minorities will comprise an ever-growing proportion of the nation's children and the poor. To the extent that public ambivalence toward funding poverty-related policy is tied to negative racial and ethnic stereotypes, growing numbers of poor immigrant children will probably reinforce, if not exacerbate, this non-Hispanic white reticence. Communities of color, however, cannot sustain a social movement on behalf of children by themselves. Any successful effort on behalf of vulnerable children will have to mobilize new immigrant groups, while at the same time attracting poor and middle-class African American and Anglo voters. Indeed, the political challenges to such an effort are substantial.
This commentary offers a two-pronged political strategy intended to build policy support, as well as a sense of urgency, on behalf of the nation's at-risk children. First, to attract diverse backing from non-Latino white, African American, and naturalized immigrant voters, political actors need to acknowledge the important role that issue framing plays in terms of mass receptivity to political messages, and to more clearly specify and communicate their goals so that moderately engaged voters (who make up the vast majority in any given electorate) can easily identify "pro-child" candidates. Secondly, greater emphasis is needed on enhancing political participation among racial minorities and new immigrants. Surveys suggest that racial minorities and immigrants are more sanguine in their support of child and family public policies than are their non-Latino white counterparts, but that numerous hurdles are associated with mobilizing these groups--especially recent immigrants who often have little knowledge of the U.S. political system. The strategies that appear to be most effective at engaging minorities and immigrant groups in the political process are group-specific mobilizing efforts.
Thus, although universal themes and messages are essential to building a broad consensus, group-specific strategies are superior to more general strategies when the aim is minority or immigrant mobilization. Both types of efforts will be needed to build a strong constituency on behalf of vulnerable children in the years ahead.
Framing Issues on Behalf of Children
With the exception of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the random curmudgeon, most Americans support the abstract notion of helping children. Unlike politically contentious groups such as "welfare recipients" and "the undeserving poor," children are accorded little responsibility for their personal circumstances.1 Thus, from a political perspective, children represent a valence issue--that is, an issue that elicits a one-sided emotional response from the public.2 When candidates claim to be pro-child or pro-family, they are staking out safe territory. No sensible contender for office would ever claim to be otherwise. One of the challenges in building constituencies that support children and family issues, however, is that when too broadly defined, children and family issues lose meaning.
An enormous body of political science and social psychological research indicates that the way an issue is framed directly affects levels of public support. Framing effects operate by priming group-based concerns in the attitude formation process.3 Any social movement that is to succeed must transform the frame in which the public views the issues of concern.4 To build a successful constituency on behalf of children, clear and simple goals of a pro-child agenda need to be identified. In addition, the emphasis needs to be on vulnerable children rather than on combating poverty, to avoid eliciting negative associations with stereotypes of poor, undeserving adults.
Identify Clear and Simple Goals
In a political environment where no consensual criteria define what it means to be pro-child, a whole host of policies and political candidates can claim to be pro-child and will likely seem credible in their claims. For example, according to some, recent legislation authored by the Bush Administration, referred to as "The Leave No Child Behind Act," provides proof that President Bush is pro-child, whereas others argue that the bill did not go far enough.
Children's advocates lack a small set of clearly staked positions that both engender organizational activity and provide clear cues to voters. People need to know what constitutes a pro-child candidate without having to exert much effort--a litmus test of pro-child policy positions that enables voters to make easy judgments. Successful collective action hinges, in part, on such simplicity.
At the same time, support for broad policy areas does not necessarily translate into backing for specific programs.5 For example, recent data from the 2002 General Social Survey (GSS) suggest that Americans of all stripes support increased spending on health care and education: Three out of four Americans say that the government is, in fact, spending too little in these areas. Yet despite the apparent overwhelming public support, there has not been much progress in either of these policy areas. In part, this is due to the fact that there is relatively little agreement on how existing challenges should be addressed. Some favor proposals that guarantee unpaid leave for parents to take care of sick children and mandate class size reduction, whereas others support proposals that increase technology investment in schools and expand early childhood education projects like Head Start. Regarding health care, the public is especially divided between government-administered solutions such as a Medicare-like system to cover children or a government voucher plan, and private sector solutions such as family tax credits to pay for insurance or tax subsidies that act as incentives for insurance companies to provide low-cost coverage for children.6
The lack of consensus on desired solutions is a serious obstacle to the goal of constituency building. Arguably all solutions are not equal, and programs that advocate more comprehensive or aggressive assistance to children in need must become rhetorically linked with support for children and families. The general cause of children would be well-served if it could be identified with two or three simple, but program-specific advocacy positions.
Emphasize Vulnerable Children, Not Poverty
Although it may be obvious to anyone who advocates for children that poverty policy and children's policy are often one and the same, it is essential that children's advocates use issue frames that emphasize vulnerable children, as opposed to the poor more generally, because American attitudes toward poverty programs typically evoke a strong cultural norm of individualism and/or powerful negative stereotypes about groups that are disproportionately poor.7 Indeed, negative attitudes toward African Americans--that they are lazy and violate cultural values of hard work and consensual moral standards--are primary explanations for why non-Latino white Americans oppose means-tested social welfare programs.8
As a result, advocates that work on behalf of children and families need to be sensitive to the nature of their appeals and de-emphasize their use of strictly poverty-related language. Instead, they should situate child welfare appeals within the larger cultural value system of preparing children for work and family responsibility. Frames such as these openly combat negative cultural stereotypes about the poor while drawing cognitive links between children and diffusely accepted social norms. Public information campaigns that dispel common misperceptions about children and poverty will be invaluable to gaining long-term policy support for programs that benefit poor families.
Mobilizing Communities of Color
Generally speaking, African Americans and Latinos represent strong potential constituencies for youth and family issues. In contrast to non-Hispanic whites, Latinos and blacks are more supportive of social welfare programs and more supportive of enhanced federal and state spending on education and health care. Although little public opinion research exists regarding Asian Americans and their dispositions toward child-friendly public policy, the population of Asian American children is growing rapidly and is projected to equal the percentage of African American children by the end of this century.9 The political challenge--especially within immigrant communities--is not to build support for children (which already exists), but to enhance rates of political participation.
Blacks and Latinos Respond to Community-Based Efforts
Participation research conducted for blacks and Latinos points to a similar conclusion: Community-based, ethnically or racially organized mobilization campaigns appear to be the most effective means of enhancing minority participation.10
For example, Southern Echo, a community-based group in Jackson, Mississippi, successfully organized African Americans in Tallahatchie County around issues of redistricting after the 1990 Census, pressuring the county board of supervisors to negotiate with a black organization for the first time.11 As a result, the board agreed to create three "electable" black districts for the five-member board.12 Many African American parishes are also effective political agents. The black church has a long tradition of effectively mobilizing members to political causes.13 Partisan grass-roots political efforts--especially when conducted in tandem with local black organizations--also tend to generate above-normal rates of black turnout.
Similarly, research conducted on Latino turnout emphasizes the importance of local Latino-based mobilizing groups in bringing above-average rates of Latinos to the polls. According to one recent study, Latinos contacted by Latino organizations were eleven percentage points more likely to vote than Latinos who were not contacted.14 Equally interesting, they found that political party contacts (in the absence of a co-ethnic tie-in) generated no incremental gains in turnout. Findings from this research strongly suggest that children's advocacy resources would be well spent on developing Latino-oriented/Latino-run organizations that can make local, pan-ethnic appeals.
At the same time, research indicates that registration drives--in the absence of ethnically-based mobilization effort--are a less efficient expenditure of scarce resources. Although registration drives may pay dividends by increasing the pool of total voters in the long run, in the short term, mobilization drives reap larger rewards, particularly when these mobilization efforts utilize ethnic or racially-specific community groups to make their requests.
Community organizations that combine political activism with social welfare support, such as La Alianza Hispana in the Roxbury/Dorchester community in South Boston, are especially successful. As discussed in several articles throughout this journal issue, many Latinos--particularly new immigrants--face serious life challenges, including lack of English language skills, poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and insufficient access to medical care and child care. La Alianza Hispana helps Latinos in their community with basic needs, while at the same time promoting civic involvement.15
Finally, one of the most effective ways of mobilizing black and Latino constituencies is to have one of their own on the ballot. Minority political candidates can have a significant influence on levels of minority turnout. For example, studies show that having black candidates on the ballot typically yields higher levels of black voter participation, all else being equal.16 Similarly, Latino candidates--especially those at the top of the ticket--also stimulate above-normal levels of voter participation among Latino voters.17 Non-Latino white candidates, even those that run with racial group endorsements or on race-specific platforms, may generate appreciable percentages of electoral support from minority voters, but even ideologically attractive white candidates typically do not enhance minority turnout.18 In practical terms, this means that advocacy groups (and political parties, for that matter) that want to build reliable electoral constituencies for children's issues need to work with community-based organizations to groom and sponsor minority candidates who can carry the children's advocacy banner into the electoral arena.
Asian Americans: Long-Term Prospects and Short-Term Challenges
Political organizing within the Asian community--with its enormous diversity across national origins, languages, religions, and more--is a particularly daunting endeavor, and considerably more difficult than mobilizing within the African American and Latino communities that have established traditions of politics as a means for community advancement. As a result, to the extent that Asian Americans represent a pool of potential constituents for political action, they are truly untapped. Even controlling for differences in education, income, length of residence, and citizenship, Asian Americans participate less than do other racial and immigrant groups.19
Yet Asian Americans are a potentially important constituency that could be mobilized to represent the interests of vulnerable children in this country. For example, as is the case in many urban areas throughout the country,20 in New York City, Asian Americans are the most rapidly expanding percentage of the population, with much of this growth attributed to immigration. Moreover, over half of all Asian American babies in New York City are born into poor or near-poor families.21
Although Asian Americans represent a small proportion of the whole, they are growing at a rapid rate, and opportunities for constituency building in select localities should be pursued. The two main political parties have paid scant attention to Asian American populations and, as such, the main sources of political socialization for Asian Americans has come from labor organizations, religious institutions, community non-profits, and ethnic voluntary organizations.22 From a strategic standpoint--similar to our recommendations regarding blacks and Latinos--inroads to the Asian American voter base show the most promise if pursued locally, and through ethnic or pan-ethnic appeals.
Public opinion generally, and policy preferences among minority voters particularly, support children- and youth-focused agendas, yet the political realization of government policies on behalf of children is far from certain. In the abstract, there is considerable support for increased government spending in areas such as education and health care. At the same time, being pro-child can be so diffuse it becomes meaningless. To advance a children's agenda, particular attention must be paid to how issues are framed and how minority and immigrant groups are mobilized.
To begin, it is imperative that advocates on behalf of children provide the public with cognitive shortcuts that simplify the political landscape into pro-child and not. In particular, it seems essential to link children's advocacy with several policy positions that can be used to rally public sentiment, enhance organizational integration, and facilitate voter decision-making. Additional research on the preferences and priorities of the public toward the children's agenda may be necessary to accomplish this task.
Importantly, however, it is also essential that children's advocates rhetorically separate questions of children's welfare from adult welfare. A majority of Americans are wary of "big government programs," particularly poverty programs. Questions of poverty, and beliefs about the root cause of poverty, have become deeply entangled with the politics of race and racial privilege in the United States. To the extent that child advocacy hinges on the success of poverty policy as it is currently framed, the long-term prospects appear rather bleak. In order to build support for children, issue framers must steer clear of old rhetoric that evokes notions of the undeserving poor, and instead, use frames that link children's advocacy with diffusely accepted values such as family and work.
Finally, though there is likely to be substantial support from minority communities with regard to children's issues generally, political participation within minority communities must be augmented for the full force of these values to be felt. However, numerous hurdles are associated with mobilizing these groups--especially more recent immigrants who often have little hands-on knowledge about the U.S. political system. To overcome these challenges, the scholarly understanding of minority mobilizing points to the efficacy of local groups in the role of grass-roots organizers. Investing in the development of strong community-based organizations that can rally voters on Election Day appears to be a particularly promising use of advocacy resources.
To the extent that communities of color rally around their racial and ethnic brethren--and to the extent that the future of our children and their welfare may rest in their collective voice at the ballot box--recruiting, training, and promoting African American and immigrant political candidates seems a necessary and most promising strategy. In the short term, immigrant mobilization efforts pay substantial dividends by linking various communities with political agencies, local organizers, and like-minded candidates. In the long term, the potential payoff from these mobilization campaigns is even greater, as these novices in the political arena become the next generation of habitual voters--voters to whom politicians must pay attention.
The task may seem daunting. But only through more strategic issue framing and mobilization efforts can efforts to build policy support and a sense of urgency on behalf of the nation's at-risk children be realized.