Analysis not enough to gain attention of policymakers
By George Gollin
Responsible public policy is built on valid data and careful analysis. But social justice issues regarding poverty, access to health care and more compete for the attention of policymakers alongside a host of other concerns. We must learn to accompany our analyses with compelling stories of heartbreak and triumph if we are to engage the emotions, and consequently the attention of legislators. It was a weekly shift in a soup kitchen that brought this home to me.
She had spent years wandering the streets, muttering and gesturing in the throes of schizophrenia. And here she was, standing at my station, waiting for her lunch. Before this she had never been more than an abstraction to me, a curious example of a sad category.
I said good morning and handed her a plate of food. She quieted and lifted her face, never looking directly at me, and said "thank you" in the smallest of voices.
And so she suddenly became real to me. She had a life, a family somewhere, and an interior landscape that her affliction had cratered as badly as the surface of the moon. She had a name; let me call her Lyssa. Before her descent into illness, Lyssa had earned a doctorate.
The soup kitchen serves nearly 1,000 hot meals during the week. On Fridays we load shopping bags with unconsumed fruits and breads so that our guests will have something to help them through the long weekend.
Our diners come to us because they must: They have not chosen to live this way. Some, like Lyssa, are incapable of holding a job. Some have found part-time work that pays little. Some are disabled, some are living on the street. All who have told me their stories struggle mightily to maintain their self-respect.
In the public discourse on poverty there are chilly statistics about income inequality and food stamps, and discussions of "marginal propensity to spend." This is the view from 30,000 feet, where poverty is one of many issues in the policy stewpot competing for attention. In private — at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser — the poor are sometimes said to be wallowing in a culture of dependency and entitlement, unwilling to take responsibility for their troubles.
It is as if they are to blame for their desperate circumstances, and are suffering proper punishment for imagined lives of irresponsibility. Those who have fallen on hard times are no more real to the advocates of this heartless moral calculus than Lyssa was to me before I met her at the soup kitchen.
The depersonalization of those in urgent need of food, shelter or medical care hides the full weight of the damage wrought by poor policy. How we speak of the consequences of our choices in governance obscures from view the bodies left for the crows. The words we use matter.
Imagine that every single day of the year a police officer were to prevent a gunman from killing a classroom full of young children. Now imagine that the United States' infant mortality rate were to fall from its 2012 value of 0.6 percent to that of Cuba, namely 0.48 percent. The number of lives saved would be about the same, roughly 7,000 per year, but we react viscerally to the former, while less so to the latter. It is easier for us to understand the human toll when an issue is initially couched in terms of something local — Lyssa at the soup kitchen, or the Newtown massacre in Connecticut — than when it is described in the cool language of statistics.
I've learned in years of lab work that I'm not smart enough to get things right the first time around. We build prototypes and redesign them when they don't work. Public policy should be like that: propose it, test it, measure an outcome, and retool it or scrap it all together.
But I've also learned that analysis doesn't sell policy to the policymakers: not in science, not in energy, and not in education. We need their emotional, as well as intellectual, engagement. Along with our tables of numbers, we need to move forward by telling stories that can bring a tear to the eye or make the heart sing.
If we do not learn to do this with great skill, our cool-surfaced analyses will not prevail over the tall tales of welfare queens and bottles of vodka purchased with food stamps.
George Gollin, who ran for Congress in the March primary, is a physics professor at the University of Illinois. He was on the board of directors of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation from 2006 to 2012.