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“RAINY WINDOW” BY CHRISTINA KERNS/WWW.CHRISTINAKERNS.COM

If there is any good to emerge from the financial upheavals of the past few years, it may come in the form of nonprofits’ realization that they cannot be rainy-day, ambivalent advocates on the issue of budgets and taxes. Whether they are advocates for children’s services, public safety or public health, or poverty prevention or remediation, it is no longer possible to ignore that they are in the business of budgets and taxes. The federal, state, and local budgets enacted and the taxes deemed necessary to support them will constrain or support the programs that nonprofits espouse.

Indeed, one might say that budgets and taxes are every nonprofit advocate’s second issue.

If that is the case, advocates across a broad spectrum of issues must stop treating messaging on budgets and taxes as an afterthought or intermittent necessary evil. They must bring to their advocacy repertoire a more refined, reliable approach to explaining how budgets and taxes affect children and family services, public safety, and many other issues. And in order to shift the discourse on public funding over the long term, they must do this year round, not simply at key points in the visible budget battles. Advocates must also consider the intersecting effects of how they communicate about budgets and taxes and their core issues.

Strategic Frame Analysis™

While many nonprofits have developed strong communications practices on their focal issues, very few have questioned how these strategies affect their ability to explain fiscal issues within that context. Put another way, what happens when you combine the framing strategies you use to advocate for a primary issue with the frames used to advocate for the related, secondary issue of public funding? Do those framing strategies yield “toxic combos” that undermine the compound message? Or, does the strategy allow for an integration of both issues into a powerful story that lifts support for progressive fiscal policies?

In this article we use the perspective of Strategic Frame Analysis™ to explore these sorts of questions, mapping the terrain that advocates need to cover in becoming more effective communicators about budgets and taxes.1 We do so because we believe—and numerous social scientists concur—that the conscientious reframing of issues is imperative to galvanizing public support.2 Political scientist Shanto Iyengar has shown, for example, that how people think about poverty is dependent on how the issue is framed: when framed structurally, people assign responsibility to society at large; when framed as a specific instance of a poor person, responsibility is assigned to the individual.3 But changing the way we frame issues requires that we understand which frames to use and which to eschew, and why. Strategic Frame Analysis™ not only examines how issues are routinely framed in news media and public conversations but also evaluates the merits of these frames based on the cultural models they ignite in mind—or their frame effects.

Beginning in late 2008, the FrameWorks Institute began a multiyear investigation of American thinking about budgets and taxes. Building on FrameWorks’ research on how Americans think about government, the goals of this project were to understand the underlying assumptions Americans have about budgets and taxes, and to develop more productive strategies for communicating about these issues. With funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we translated these findings into an interactive game tool that allows advocates to explore the intersections of education and early child development with budgets and taxes.4 The insights we offer here are based on this research and our experiences advising dozens of nonprofit groups in related message framing.

The Drip-Drip-Drip Hypothesis

Media theorist George Gerbner coined the term “drip-drip-drip” to refer to the effects that emerge after steady long-term exposure to media frames. In this process, ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives encounter frames that seep into their thinking, connect to their internalized ideas about how the world works, become chronically accessible, and eventually drive thinking. What is present in the drip-drip-drip of messages about budgets and taxes? Budgets are rarely present in the flow of frames except as they relate to (1) government excess or incompetence, and (2) household budgeting. But taxes are ubiquitous, and not just in politics—a steady drip-drip-drip of meaning is omnipresent in ads for accounting and tax preparation services, in news you can use for April 15 tax filing, and in consumer tips about buying or selling a home or sending your child to college. And what do we learn from this faucet of frames? It’s a pretty consistent message, as codified in this (paraphrased) ad campaign from TurboTax: It’s your money. We know how hard you work for your paycheck. You should have the power to keep as much as possible.

Far from an innocuous invitation to buy a product, the framing in this advertising campaign tells us that advertisers are playing to the way people have come to think about taxes: they rob people of their earned income, they violate fundamental American principles that reward hard work, and it is the right of every American to resist taxation. These frames are designed to connect to Americans’ deeply held cultural models that shape and constrain how people think about an issue and the solutions they see as effective and appropriate.5 People’s mental muscles are being exercised with great regularity on this issue, building strong connections between the term “taxes” and these deeply held cultural models of how the world works. Getting out of this situation will require nonprofit communicators to become highly strategic and intentional in the way they wield new frames to break down these forged connections.

What’s in the Swamp?

Most approaches to communication make it a priority to anticipate and understand the audience. Strategic “framers” approach this task by seeking to understand the cultural models accessible to people when they think about a particular issue, or the “implicit, presumed models of the world that are widely shared and that play an enormous role in the public’s understanding of that world and their behavior in it.”6 For example, the American cultural model about work would include the widely shared notion that work should be rewarded and that people who don’t work shouldn’t get the same rewards as those who do. A steady diet of stories in news media and public discourse plays to these cultural models, enhancing our ability to use them as reliable, default meaning-making devices. In short, cultural models help us to filter and categorize new information, determine relevance and priorities, and guide our decision making.7 When we choose how to frame a message, we must understand what cultural models we are playing to, and with what consequences for our positions and policies. And, more often than not, the choice of frames already dominant in discourse yields no movement in public thinking beyond the status quo.

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In explaining this complex array of implicit concepts that the public uses to make sense of the world on any given topic, FrameWorks appeals to the metaphor of a “swamp.” When social scientists examine what’s at play in people’s reasoning, they do not witness a barren landscape but rather a complex, vibrant, messy, “swampy” ecology of cultural models that people have stored away over time and bring forward as necessary to explain their world. The “swamp” metaphor can help advocates appreciate several fundamental characteristics of cultural models:

  1. People hold multiple cultural models on any given issue. In our research, we often observe an informant arguing passionately for one way of thinking, only to see him or her endorse an opposite position in the next breath.
  2. Cultural models are neither inherently good nor inherently bad; it depends on where you want to lead people. Some parts of that swamp will prove useful for growing your advocacy goals—places where you can nurture positive support for your progressive policies. Other parts are full of alligators, dangerous currents, and sinkholes—places where your policy proposals are likely to meet tough opposition from entrenched habits of thinking.
  3. Cultural models are directive. That is, whatever part of the swamp you “re-mind” people about will be used by people to “think” or process your issue. The lesson is clear for advocates: you must avoid activating cultural models that take people in the wrong direction and focus on invigorating only those that allow people to reason more productively and expansively.

Let’s apply cultural models theory and our swamp heuristic to the issue domain of budgets and taxes. Think of communications as navigating the swamp and mapping it in order to determine what you have to work with and what you will need to avoid in the future. To map the swamp of public thinking about budgets and taxes, FrameWorks conducted twenty-five one-on-one, in-depth interviews with members of the public, followed by peer-discourse sessions with fifty-four adults divided into small groups. To find ways around the traps lurking in that swamp, we conducted an experimental survey with 6,700 Americans, documenting the effects of various “reframes” in inoculating against unproductive models and pulling forward more productive ways of thinking. Here’s what the swamp of budgets and taxes looks like:

Relating budgets to taxes. A notable characteristic of the swamp is that in public thinking, budgets and taxes are disconnected concepts.8 FrameWorks’ informants struggled to link the two concepts, and were consistently unable to explain decisions and respond to problem-solving tasks that required their integration. This finding reveals a highly problematic cultural understanding—one that sets up a disjointed conversation in which budgets are not related to nor integrated with taxes. Reasoning in this way, people cannot see a system in which the country sets both short- and long-term priorities, and pays for them with revenues from past taxes as well as projecting for future needs. If they cannot see a system, the need to reform the system is equally “hard to think.” Divorced from this integrative relationship, the default models of budgets and taxes are not required to make sense with respect to each other and thereby elude an important reality check. At the same time, when FrameWorks’ researchers forced informants to relate budgets to taxes, there emerged a strong cultural model in which inputs must equal outputs. That is, the “common sense” that most Americans bring to these issues asserted a one-to-one correspondence in which balance is best and inputs can occasionally exceed outputs, but outputs can never exceed inputs without the system’s collapsing.

Why is this problematic? Many economists and public policy experts believe that the current narrow discourse on public budgets and the role of the American tax system does not reflect the full range of policy thinking necessary to solving the problems that assail the country. Most recently, Harry J. Holzer and Isabel Sawhill pointed out:

Alarmists who call for immediate spending cuts and immediate reductions in our debt-to-GDP ratio (now at 73 percent) overstate the dangers of current levels of spending and debt, and they understate the damage to employment and economic growth that result from recently enacted belt tightening. That tightening, including the effects of provisions enacted in both 2011 and 2013, is expected to halve the growth rate in the gross domestic product this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This self-inflicted wound to the economy and to jobs makes no sense. If anything, we should be using this period when workers are underemployed and firms’ physical plant and financial resources are underutilized to improve productivity by investing more in infrastructure and job training.9

Yet current American discourse on the role of government and its tax systems is not about job training, infrastructure growth, or even the necessity of a sustainable system with a robust social safety net that invests in human capital of all members of society. As such, the public’s myopic outlook inhibits any opportunity to view public budgets and taxes as the tools society needs in order to meet its goals for the future.

The household budget model. We are far from experts on fiscal issues, but we do understand how the cultural models available to people on budgets and taxes prevent the broader conversation that experts would like them to join. When forced to think and talk about budgets, our informants defaulted to several powerful models. First, they individualized the topic, often equating budgets and budgeting with the household kind. Once thinking from this model, people draw upon the personal qualities they believe make for good household budgeting: notably, a good household budgeter has “character”—or moral and ethical traits—that allows him or her to overcome selfishness and self-indulgence. Taking responsibility for his or her household, the budgeter exercises belt-tightening discipline, resulting in shared hardship that is tough but builds character in everyone. Like dieting, budgets were described in terms of strict behaviors: “taking control,” “sticking with it,” and avoiding excess. In addition to focusing all attention on individual (moral) traits of the budgeters, this cultural model assumes that budget balancing is the ultimate goal. Budget experts reject this analogy because it overly simplifies and distorts the public budgeting process. For instance, the household budget model works with short time frames—paycheck to paycheck, month to month, and year to year. In contrast, public budgets are not tied to immediate revenue but rather to long-term needs. Government budgets need to fund very large investments (i.e., infrastructure) that must be amortized over time. The taxes we pay today do not fund our medical or technological advances of next month but those far into the future. In addition, the household budget model holds that short-term sacrifice necessarily leads to long-term benefits, but this analogy does not hold for public budgets: sometimes austerity results in bad financial outcomes.

The `is instructive in demonstrating how cultural models shape and constrain public thinking. Once this quickly accessible, concrete analogy is evoked to explain the abstract, complex process of public budgeting, it will influence the interpretation and assessment of information on the topic. It brings with it a package of assumptions about the character traits of good household budgeters—thinking that easily leads to opinions about the government’s lack of “discipline,” or inability to prioritize needs over wants.

The household budget model is also instructive in illustrating that common tropes are often communication “traps.” Advocates are understandably attracted to this simple analogy that seems so popular with the public, but it is ultimately unproductive in advancing the case for public support of critical initiatives. There is an important lesson to be extracted from this alligator in the swamp: not everything that people are familiar with works to one’s advantage. The goal of communications is not simply to relate to or “resonate” with people’s prior convictions but rather to guide their thinking and opinions toward a desired position. To accomplish this, strategic framers look to research that describes the available cultural models, consider the implications of each, and choose to build a framing strategy on the cultural models that work to their advantage in explaining progressive programs and policies.

The interpretation of “fairness.” Now let’s take a look at what’s in the swamp of thinking about taxes. Just as the cultural models for budgets tended to be highly individualistic, so the default models about taxes focused more on individual than collective needs. One of the most commonly expressed beliefs about taxes was that they undermine Americans’ ability to meet their needs. At the core of this model is the belief that personal earned income should be dedicated to earners’ immediate needs as individuals and families, and that government “takes money away from [us].”10 Closely related to this way of thinking is the consumerist assumption that people should get their money’s worth: if taxes are paying for goods, people should be able to immediately see and appreciate the thing they have purchased. In other words, people have a model that, like a vending machine, suggests taxes in, goods out, in exact proportions.

This vending machine cultural model can lead to faulty thinking about budgets and taxes. Many of the “goods” purchased with tax revenue are intangible, invisible, or ill understood as resulting from public funding. Without considerable prompting, such collective benefits as education, highways, social security, public health, and safety are not “top of mind”; indeed, they are often not recognized as “public” goods. The collective benefits that taxes support are masked by the consumerist model. If taxes are all about benefits accruing to individuals in the exact amount that individuals put in, there is quite literally no space for benefits from taxes that don’t accumulate to individuals, or that may tax some people more than others in order to support the common good.

The interpretation of “fairness” is similarly influenced by consumerist thinking. In the public mind, the default definitions of tax “fairness” involve either complete standardization (everyone should pay the same amount) or fee for service (everyone should pay only for the services he or she uses, and in proportion to how much is used). These powerful models guided thinking in everyday conversations among our informants, despite the fact that there was almost universal consensus that wealthy people and corporations should bear greater burdens in the tax system. And herein is another important lesson: when cultural models are vivid and well exercised, they tend to trump other opinions we hold.

Perceptions of government. While the concepts of budgets and taxes are disconnected from each other in public thinking—like Mars and Venus, in the title of a FrameWorks report11—they are nevertheless perceived to orbit within the same solar system: that of government. How people think about government flavors their understanding of both budgets and taxes—what these are and should be, how they work or don’t, and whom they benefit or disadvantage.12 As FrameWorks’ research shows, cultural models commonly used to think about government pollute the swamp of budgets and taxes with strong, entrenched currents. On the one hand, there is the view of government as “it”—or a big, bloated bureaucracy of undifferentiated parts that is wasteful and out of control. Reasoning from this model, Americans assume that “it” will try to take their hard-earned funds, be unable to control its own excessive spending, and act irresponsibly with “someone else’s” (their) money. On the other hand, there is the view of government as “them”—or an array of untrustworthy politicians who are using Americans’ hard-earned funds for their own purposes. It is important to note how individual intentions and character traits flavor this discussion; here the moralism of the budgets and taxes discussion draws further credence from the immoral context that characterizes the domain of government. “What would you expect from government,” people ask, “if not to take your money and spend it on some crazy thing you will never see?” And, as scholar Deborah Tannen has remarked, “The world, being a systematic place, confirms these expectations, saving us the individual the trouble of figuring things out anew all the time.”13

Navigating the Swamp Is Hard Work—
You Need Gear

What are nonprofit communicators to make of or do with this swamp of highly patterned, well-traveled ways of thinking about budgets and taxes? As with any journey, you are going to need a map to get from where you are to where you want to go. The swamp we’ve just described tells us where people are stuck and what concepts routinely and predictably inform their conversations and opinions. But the dominant cultural models are not the only ways people think about these issues. As we saw with the issue of fairness, people have other ideas about how the world should work—they are just less formed, less practiced, or sketchier than those that get exercised daily in public discourse. The job of strategic reframers is to identify more useful, albeit rare or recessive, models hidden in the swamp, and to figure out how to pull them forward.

If cultural models research provides a map of public thinking, then framing strategies might be thought of as the gear needed to get through the swamp. Strategic Frame Analysis™ points to two powerful reframing tools that have performed consistently to invigorate more productive models of budgets and taxes, of government and the common good. These tools cue up concepts already in mind but less developed than the dominant cultural models we’ve observed in the swamp. Think of them as big magnets we wave over the swamp in order to pull up what’s valuable.

Tools for Reframing

When we scrutinize the swamp of existing cultural models of budgets and taxes, we find a notable lack of ideas about the end goal. Not only are taxes seen as an end in themselves, the budget process is routinely thought of as a game that government plays with other people’s money—a kind of macabre Monopoly. How might we remind people what’s at stake in setting priorities for the country and raising the funds necessary to support those goals? Can we realign budgets and taxes behind larger ideas about how the world should work, beyond consumerism and individualism?

The values tool. The first tool in the reframing tool kit of Strategic Frame Analysis™ is values, or those enduring beliefs that orient individuals’ attitudes and behavior and form the basis for social appeals that pull audiences’ reactions in a desirable direction.14 Values hold promise for redirecting thinking on these questions, but it’s important to make sure that the right value is assigned to the job. To ground framing recommendations in solid scholarly research, FrameWorks’ comprehensive experimental survey tested the frame effects of four values on support for progressive tax and budget attitudes and policy preferences. Those values were: Crisis, Prevention, Common Good, and Future.15 These values were not chosen randomly; rather, each represents a hypothesis about which framing might be most effective in reorienting public thinking on budgets and taxes.

The Crisis value is used frequently by policy experts and advocates for progressive budget and tax reform. That is, it is one of the values to emerge from the field of practice. Based on our prior research on social issues, we hypothesized that Crisis would not elevate public support for policy, as the tone of the value primes the public to see the problem as overwhelming and intractable. Thus we thought it would likely push people to disengage from the issue, ignoring the possible efficacy of proposed solutions. Additionally, we predicted that “crisis fatigue,” or the public oversaturation with this way of thinking about the world, would blunt or undermine frame effects.

The Prevention and Common Good values were included on the basis of positive results in previous FrameWorks research, in which similar contours of public thinking presented themselves. For instance, in work on reframing racial disparities, Prevention helped people to move past thinking that was fixated on the present-time horizon of social problems, and we hypothesized that Common Good would be effective in reminding people of the public goods that are supported by taxation. The Future value emerged during our qualitative work on budgets and taxes, having been employed quite skillfully by one of the participants in our peer discourse sessions. Her ability to change the entire conversation of a diverse group of participants alerted us to the potential of this value, and we subsequently tested it in other phases of the research.16

FrameWorks’ experimental design involved exposing participants to a short paragraph explaining one of the values, and then probing their attitudes toward the topic as well as their support for a wide range of progressive policies. (Values frames are judged effective if they achieve statistical significance in raising support for policies, compared to the null condition in which people get no value but are simply asked about their attitudes toward budgets and taxes and their support for policies.) In the case of the experiment on budgets and taxes, the policy list included everything from expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to rejecting flat taxes and budget cuts. Then, we tested the synergistic effects of each of our four candidate values with a secondary paragraph about budgets and taxes—that is, could the value gain strength when applied to the issue domain?

One of the tested values achieved a statistically significant result in moving attitudes and policy preferences, but in a negative direction: Crisis. As predicted, framing budget issues in terms of Crisis depresses, rather than increases, support for public budgets and related progressive policies. What worked? One value—Prevention—outperformed all others in moving attitudes and policy support toward the more progressive end of the scales. Compared to the control group that received no values frame, priming subjects with the value of Prevention increased support on the attitudes scale by 12.4 points, a statistically significant change. When the paragraph about budget and taxes was added, it enhanced the attitudes effect to 17 points. On the policy preferences scale, the results of a Prevention frame showed a trend in a positive direction, though these results did not achieve statistical significance. No other values frame achieved significance.

On the Prevention Value

Our state/country could do more to prevent problems before they occur. Instead of postponing our response to fiscal problems, we could use our resources today to prevent them from becoming worse. When we postpone dealing with these problems, they get bigger and cost more to fix later on. We would be better off in the long run if we took steps today to prevent the fiscal problems that we know will affect the well-being of our state.

How does Prevention help us? First, it conveys the idea that acting now to prevent problems from becoming worse is the responsible thing to do, while postponing action will have consequences for us all. Moreover, it establishes the idea that using resources that we have today can help us to solve problems. These ways of framing the issue pull forward other available ways of thinking about what is moral and responsible behavior than merely tightening one’s belt. They also put forward goals that are bigger than one’s own consumption. In this way, the value of Prevention performs that magnetizing function over the swamp of cultural models, pulling forward what’s useful and leaving the rest behind.

The explanatory metaphors tool. The second reframing tool FrameWorks commonly advances is the explanatory metaphor. This device is especially useful when public thinking reveals “cognitive holes”—such as the missing concept of the relationship between budgets and taxes. To fill these “holes” in public understanding, FrameWorks develops and tests explanatory metaphors that make concepts easier to understand by organizing information and comparing it to something concrete, vivid, and familiar.

We set out to use metaphor to address some very specific problems lurking in the swamp. In order to use metaphor to full advantage