Child Advocacy Requires Careful Choice of Rhetoric, Says Expert

Gormley book cover

Every society wants the best for its children, and the United States is no exception. We love our kids and want them to have the brightest possible future. 

But, then, why we do so little on their behalf when it comes to public policy? On Wednesday, February 20, 2013, visiting scholar William T. Gormley delivered a lecture on this topic at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Gormley is a University Professor and professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University, where he co-directs the Center for Research on Children in the US (CROCUS).  He focused his remarks on the findings of his new book, Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy (Brookings, 2012), in which he compares the effectiveness of difference “issue frames” on persuading voters of the worth of government initiatives focused on the well-being of children.

The paradox that child advocates must confront

It seems like a paradox: Children are beloved in the United States, but this does not translate into government policy. For instance, Gormley pointed out, we have a 22 percent child poverty rate, and we spend seven times as much on our senior citizens as we do on our children. 

“If you look at a wide range of public policy and public policy outcomes, you see that children are not faring well in the United States,” he said.

What explains the low priority given to children’s issues in this country? For Gormley, the reasons are innate and complicated. For a start, he said, children are not the only beloved group in this country. They must compete for limited resources with the disabled and senior citizens, for example. And, whereas members of these other groups have voting rights as well as their own advocacy organizations, children are unable to vote and require “surrogates” to advocate on their behalf.

Then there is the media coverage of children, Gormley noted. It is generally episodic—covering one particular human interest story about a single child—rather than thematic, connecting many stories to a larger political issue such as child poverty or vulnerability to gun violence. 

“It can be difficult for us as a society to galvanize around children as an issue,” said Gormley, “except when something really dramatic and exceptionally awful happens, as in the case of the Newtown Massacre.”

A choice of issue frames and the importance of rhetoric

In Gormley’s view, the “issue frames” we use for children’s causes radically affect their legislative prospects. In his book, he identifies four of these:

  • The helping hand metaphor: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
  • The equal opportunity metaphor: Everyone deserves an equal chance in life.
  • The prevention metaphor: Prevention is cheaper than treatment.
  • The investment metaphor: Learning begets learning, skill begets skill.

Gormley went on to note that while in the 1960s children’s issues were framed primarily in moralistic terms, the past fifty years have seen a shift towards framing children’s issues almost exclusively in economic terms. 

“Without our fully noticing it, there has been a change in the kind of rhetoric used to advocate for children’s issues,” he said.

This is a positive development, he added, as according to both university and national studies, economic arguments on behalf of child programs are more consistently persuasive than moralistic arguments, especially to wealthy and independent voters whose influence matters the most.

But there is room for improvement, he stressed. In particular, advocates for pro-children institutions should seek to sharpen their rhetoric. Every pro-child policy needs to have a full explanation, an intermediate explanation, and one that “fits on a bumpersticker,” Gormley said, adding that child advocates must choose their words carefully because “sometimes all people will hear are the sound bites."

-- Contributed by Julien M. Hawthorne

Note: If you would like to watch Professor Gormley's presentation in full, please go to YouTube video.