Public Problems, Your Story or Mine?

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An example of a public problem is the proliferation of crime in housing projects. It is almost impossible to describe the problem without referencing social constructs.

Social Constructs

According to the book, Theories of the Policy Process, social constructs are created by policy makers to cast beneficiaries or recipients in either a positive or negative light. In turn, the distribution of benefits or encumbrances reflects and further defines the perception of the target population. The book further delineates target groups into four classifications: advantaged, contenders, dependents, and deviants (Sabatier, Paul 2007, p 101-103).

In this view, people living in housing projects could easily vacillate between being defined as dependent (mothers, poor) or deviant (welfare mothers, criminals) depending on who is defining them. Unfortunately, the social construct surrounding housing projects is often the deviant construct.

Problem Definition

In addition to social construction, who and what become part of the problem definition? Is a slow job market or poor education system to blame? Are businesses such as payday loans or pawn shops contributing to the problem? Or could it be something simple like the housing ownership in disadvantaged areas not understanding what life is like in a housing project? Are owners and managers taking a hands-off approach to the care of the communities? Is it possible that many landlords are elites who have never had a brush with poverty? Perhaps they have misconceptions that make them too afraid to make a presence in the community. Are street-level bureaucrats painting the housing projects as deviant with a self-filling prophecy brush? Is the city displaying a representative democracy in its local government?

Policy Narratives

The policy narratives that shape the problem definition can be tricky. The policy narratives generally pull from opposite directions and rely on storytelling skills to evoke emotion. In the case of housing projects, on the one hand, proponents may craft arguments that it is not the fault of the poor. That they are a disadvantaged population that is being unfairly preyed upon. Proponents could cite failures of the education system and the negative social capital that makes it so difficult to move out of poverty. At the other end of the spectrum, critics of housing policy could cite stories of “welfare queens” and undeserving people scamming the system to get more handouts. They could say that people make too many babies and do not want to work. Or that the poor are irresponsible people who are lazy and create a drain on government and tax payers.

The unmet social values created in inadequate housing are juxtaposed to the right of every individual to find a reasonably safe and decent place to live. It is hard to ascertain whether the definition of social value is part of the problem or a symptom of other social ills. This difficulty could give rise to one argument against government intervention. Critics of government intervention could cite that it is too messy of a problem definition to “waste” tax payer money on “fixing it.”  They could site studies for crime rates on the rise in general and push for the people that “chose” to live in projects to solve their own problems. Or that it is not up to the government to give them yet another “handout.”

Proponents of government intervention could site studies of crime rates in and around housing projects as compared to other areas. They could also cite studies of how neighborhood cleanup efforts and neighborhood watch programs increase social equity and contribute to stronger communities. Proponents could state that in diverting resources to train street-level bureaucrats or building owners that it, in fact, reduces costs in other areas that are then passed on to tax payers.

Solving public problems is never an easy task – that is part of why people become so passionate when talking about politics.  So much of what we know to be “true” is based on someone else’s version of the story.  The next time you feel yourself reacting to a public problem take a step back and see what stories are tied up in the conversation. You might be surprised.

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