Reframing newsletter

Budget Season: An Opportunity to Show How Human Services Improve Well-Being

February 22, 2018

Financial charts with notebook and laptop

On February 12, the Administration put forth its federal budget for Fiscal Year 2019 that begins on October 1. The President’s human services proposal, which reflects the Administration’s priorities beyond just the year at hand, includes major funding decreases and punitive program conditions that the sector will be addressing in its advocacy and communications efforts over the next several months.

Among other cuts, the Administration’s budget decreases funding for cornerstone programs that meet fundamental, interlocking human needs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing, and health care, as well as eliminates afterschool funding and mandates long-term program cuts. The proposal also would negatively restructure programs, including: replacing SNAP food choice with a box of non-perishable goods; imposing work requirements as conditions of Medicaid, SNAP, and housing subsidies; and converting funding to block grants that would allow states to restrict services and eligibility. By constraining eligibility, discouraging participation, and mandating counterproductive conditions, the proposal would limit services provided and people covered, thereby stifling community well-being.

In addition to the federal budget, Governors across the country also are offering their FY19 state budgets or recommending revisions to already enacted ones. The discussions that are generated by the proposed budgets in the media, in Congress, and in state legislatures offer a valuable opportunity for human service organizations to publicize how their programs improve communities by building physical, emotional, social, and financial well-being.

In this newsletter, we show some of the key challenges to overcome in the public’s mind about government budgets, particularly around human services, that are often reinforced by the budgets themselves. We also offer framing strategies to advance human services’ funding priorities in your organization’s communications with stakeholders and policymakers as you respond to both federal and state budget proposals.

Budgets Prompt Unproductive Frames

The Administration’s budget capitalizes on the public’s misunderstandings about why people access human services, as well as harmful misconceptions Frameworks Institute’s research has found that the public holds about government budgets. These unproductive viewpoints can block human service organizations’ messages and, according to Frameworks, prevent people from seeing “public budgets and taxes as the tools society needs in order to meet its goals for the future.” In particular, it is easy to cue up zero-sum calculations, where the public believes that the benefits of publicly funded services are accruing to non-taxpayers at the expense of tax payers. This “us versus them” perspective relies heavily on negative stereotypes about who is accessing services and why (i.e., a lack of hard work or will power). Beliefs about bureaucratic inefficiency and waste are also easy to prime for the public when talking about the breadth, depth and expenses of government budgets.

duo working at laptops

Frame a Constructive Conversation Around Funding with Accurate Messages

Take care not to reinforce these dominant, inaccurate stereotypes by trying to refute them or using adversarial language. Instead, set up a different conversation by reorienting the budget discussion around clear, accurate, and explanatory information about human services funding:

  • Rely on the Building Well-Being Narrative to expand the public’s knowledge of what human services are, how they work, and why they are important at different stages of life. Include examples that go beyond direct services addressing basic needs, such as prevention, planning, and research.
  • Explain how human services, and the taxes and public budgets that make them possible, provide collective benefits, public goods, and positive program outcomes (e.g., education, health) for all of us.
  • Emphasize how public funding helps human services address challenges that are the result of systemic causes, not individual failings, just as the solutions rectify societal problems and, in doing so, foster social, emotional, physical, and financial well-being and fulfill human potential, therefore benefiting the whole society, even those who don’t directly use services.
  • Define public budgets as forward-thinking, cost-effective planning tools that address long-term needs, prevent expensive problems before they occur, and require investments over time, using past and present taxes.

We will continue to come back to this topic over the next several months as the state and federal budget debates unfold. In the meantime, please email Bridget Gavaghan, Director of the National Reframing Initiative, with questions, tips, and your organization’s reframed budget communications.