This chapter follows on the heels of our series on the cultural value of “hard work,” and explores the ways that talking about pro-worker and other progressive policies through a lens of “helping” can backfire (and what we can do to avoid this trap).

As progressive advocates and communicators, we believe strongly that policies – whether they are income supports or protections from capricious employers – are vital and necessary for shared prosperity. And it can often feel like the strongest argument for these policies is to point out how government action helps those who need it the most.

We tend to say something that boils down to: People are struggling to get by, and we need the government to step in and help.

This framing resonates with much of the progressive base. But for most other audiences – especially people in the South and Southern Midwest (including workers in the region) – talking about government through the lens of helping can backfire.

Why? In short, the lens of “helping” easily triggers thoughts about the pitfalls of over-generous help (encouraging dependency, laziness, or taking advantage) that can violate the cultural values of self-determination and hard work.  Especially in the South and Southern Midwest, it’s also a primary language through which racism can get expressed (we’ll take a deep dive into this dynamic in an upcoming chapter).

In over 300 in-depth ethnographic interviews across Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, we see that most people differentiate between help that is good and necessary and help that does more harm than good.  Giving a hand to someone who can’t help themselves or who’s trying to improve their situation, for example, is viewed as good and appropriate. But too much help, especially for someone who should be helping themselves, is viewed as encouraging people to be lazy or to stop working.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of people’s anti-government attitudes are rooted in the idea that government help too often falls into the “more harm than good” category.

“Help” violates the values of self-determination and hard work

Seeing policies through the “helping” lens causes people to forefront individuals: considerations about who truly needs help, how to pay for that help, and how to put limits on help so it doesn’t backfire. We inadvertently create more cognitive hurdles for our case by running up against the values of individual self-determination and hard work.

Self-determination, including struggle, is core to Americans’ worldview.

As individuals, we value our own stories of overcoming adversity, including the bad jobs that motivated us to work for better jobs.

As parents, we instill personal responsibility and encourage our children toward standing on their own two feet.

As friends and neighbors, we admire those who struggled and sacrificed and disdain those who had everything handed to them.

As citizens, we want solutions that support agency, responsibility and self-determination, not dependence.

This in mind, too much emphasis on “helping” triggers ideas about government “handouts”  as both morally and psychologically damaging AND financially and economically irresponsible.

“You know it, for me, I worked three jobs to go to school and took out loans to pay to get an education. Nothing was given to me. And I think that’s how it should be with everybody. Everybody should work for what they have.”

49-year-old white woman, conservative, AR

“No matter what you come from, you start at the bottom and you work your way up… Yeah. You got to prove yourself, you got to bring something to the table, and you got to show out.”

27-year-old Black man, independent, MO

As we discussed in an earlier chapter – work in our culture is much more than an economic actHard work and striving are deeply rooted values shared across demographics and entangled in ideas of morality and worth. And many, particularly the older generation, put a high value not just on hard work, but on struggle, sacrifice, and paying your dues.

Many people simply don’t assume a constructive role for government or policies to play in this area. All they see is the pitfall of over-generous help, which undermines work ethic as well as the pride, self-worth and claim to respect that come with it.

“ … like I said, the handouts. You just handed it out, making people just get lazy and content where they are. They’re not going to want to get up and do anything else or try to go work because they know this is coming.”

56-year-old Black woman, independent, GA

“Well, if you’re in high poverty areas, people who don’t really have jobs, don’t just hand out money. They have to work for it. I know that it sounds really mean to say, but everyone has to work for something in their life.”

20-year-old white woman, political leaning unknown, KS

“I have never been one of those people who likes to be given everything, but rather I like to work for what I have.”

24-year-old Hispanic man, political leaning unknown, AR

“Help” conflicts with the idea of sound economic stewardship

People easily default to zero sum thinking. There’s an assumption that policies that help workers actually end up hurting businesses, and potentially all of us.

In peoples’ minds,  policies that raise wage and labor standards, for example, cause harm to businesses (by costing employers money), which then harms the economy and  people (businesses may end up cutting jobs, for example).

“I believe everyone should receive a wage that is fair for the job they perform, but putting businesses out of business to meet their demands is detrimental to local economies. A good example is the auto industry leaving Detroit because they could no longer meet the demands of unions and still produce cars people could afford to buy.” 

62-year-old Native American woman, moderate, AL

“We could change the rules, but then we risk losing the jobs that we have and alienating other major companies that might offer better opportunities from moving here, because they will feel our state is hostile towards them and their interests.” 

39-year-old white man, political leaning unknown, KS

Moreover, if overgenerous handouts encourage people not to work, government policies result in obvious economic downsides such as shortages, longer waits, and more financial burden for those who don’t get the same benefits.

How can we avoid the “helping” trap?

Of the three synergistic elements we introduced in chapter 2 (We Need a Paradigm Shift), the first point – framing the well-being of everyday people as the driver of a good economy for everyone – works against the perception that progressives take care of people at the expense of the economy.

  1. People drive the economy, and businesses rely on us.
  2. Taking active steps to build up and include ALL people makes both moral and economic sense.
  3. Some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers; so we need rules and guardrails.

Instead, we make the case that people-centered government policies are good for both people and the economy. In fact, they are necessary for a good economy. It’s not an either/or.

Furthermore, characterizing government policies as providing the tools and opportunities for people to build a better life, reinforces self-determination and agency, not passive dependence. (See Winning Jobs Narrative)

Finally, by emphasizing the rules that prevent exploitation, these elements make a case for government intervention that people can readily accept, while also laying the foundation for policies that support both people AND prosperity.

“When people feel secure, happy and well, they are more inclined to spend the money to fuel our economy better…Policies should help reinforce that.”

36-year-old Black man, moderate, AL

“The economy needs workers to be paid decent wages in order for them to put money into the economy itself.  If employers don’t pay well, the economy suffers for everyone including their own business…if the rules don’t force employers to treat their workers fairly, the economy suffers and everyone suffers.” 

54-year-old white woman, moderate, MO 

“Bottom feeding employers want to keep people stuck in a negative system of low wages and high taxes… When people don’t feel the weight of crushing debt and dead-end jobs, they’re optimistic, happy, sleep better and contribute more to the world around them.” 

39-year-old white woman, very conservative, AR