Conditions, Problems, and Issues–Oh My!

There’s often a point during the semester when my students look at me like I’m crazy (OK, so there may be more than one such point, but this is a specific one)–when they tell me the social problem that they want to address in a particular assignment, and I ask them if that’s really a social problem.

Blank stare and open mouth

Of course it’s a problem, they reply. It makes my clients’ lives difficult/unfair/fill-in-the-blank. What are you talking about?

Thus begins a very necessary conversation about the difference between social conditions, social problems, and the kinds of issues around which we can really organize. Understanding this difference is part of what makes a policy analyst able to frame concerns so that they become part of the policy agenda. It’s also what helps an organizer to pitch issues in such a way that they resonate with potential activists and become victories for the organization.

So, then, what makes a social condition a ‘problem’? The first step is what my students and I experience in class–the realization that not all social conditions, even those that are, to us, obviously problematic, become defined as social problems. I often use a definition from Donald Chambers’ textbook here: social problems are “concerns about the quality of life for large groups of people that are either held as a broad consensus among a population or voiced by social and economic elites” (Chambers, 2000). This definition provides some important insights into how advocates translate a social condition into a problem that warrants/demands action. We must either demonstrate that large numbers of people are affected; convince elites to champion the problem; and/or influence public opinion such that a consensus develops that action is needed (or appearance of such consensus). Our organizing, direct action, research, media work, and lobbying are all strategies that can be used to achieve this shift in perception.

Some examples that I use to illustrate these points in class:

  • For years, racial discrimination not seen as a ‘problem’ in U.S. society (because elites and, indeed, much of the public, was unconvinced that it was problematic)
  • Income inequality still is not considered a problem in the United States–we may be concerned about poverty on the low end, but the existence of tremendous wealth has traditionally not been considered a problem, but just a condition (although the current recession may be altering this somewhat)
  • Tax burdens have been framed as a social problem even when, objectively, the U.S. has a far lower tax ratio than most developed nations (elites perceive this as a problem and have advanced a social problem frame that convinces many in the public as well)

    So, then, once you’ve established that you are, indeed, working with a social problem, how do you move from that to an issue that will work in an organizing or policy advocacy context?

    Issues have, implicit within their framing, a specific solution to a specific social problem. A quote that I use from one of our readings: “Issues establish the boundaries of the power struggle. They are the battleground for increased power, and concern for the issues creates the need for power” (Mondros and Wilson, 1994). I have modified some of the Bobo text’s content on evaluating issues to help students figure out how to ‘cut’ their social problem into one or more issues that can work for an advocacy/organizing campaign.

    1. Will addressing the issue result in real improvement in people’s lives?
    Without a sense of self-interest, only the most altruistic will get involved, their involvement will be less tangible, and their voices will not be as powerful.
    2. Does working on the issue give people a sense of their own power?
    If the issue is not one that transforms people’s lives, then you will have nothing if you lose. If the process is empowering, then there are victories even when the issue itself is not successful. This can be difficult for professional social workers, who like to solve people’s problems, and who often have relationships and resources (access to experts, grants, etc…) that could shortcut the long and difficult change process.

    3. Is the issue winnable? This, of course, requires an analysis not only of the issue, but also of the political/economic/social climate and of your organization’s own power. This does NOT mean that it has to be an easy victory, but if it is evident to all involved, from the beginning, that you are fighting an impossible fight, there will be little motivation for anyone to ally him/herself with you.

    4. Is the issue widely and deeply felt?
    Sometimes, in trying to find something that has broad appeal, we fail to identify an issue that people really care enough about. You’re not going to convince everyone that they need to be part of your campaign, and that shouldn’t be your goal. On the other hand, if your issue only resonates with a very small group of people, those people will need to be very mobilized and/or very powerful for your campaign to succeed.

    5. Is the issue easy to understand (or to frame so that it is easy to understand)?
    If you can’t say, in fewer than 15 seconds, exactly what the problem is and what you want changed, you need to sit down and rework your issue. This isn’t about soundbites; it’s about accessibility.

    6. Do you have a clear target (or more than one, but clearly defined and focused)?
    It should be clear exactly who needs to do what in order for the problem to get better (otherwise, there’s no one to hold accountable for failing to act and you won’t be able to organize good actions). If you respond, “society” or “corporate America” or “the government” when asked who’s responsible for the perpetuation of your issue, then you need a new issue or a new understanding of your issue.

    7. Do you have a clear time frame that works for your organizational and community needs?
    I tell my students all the time–there are, unfortunately, enough pressing issues for us to be a bit ‘choosy’ when it comes to deciding on campaigns. If a particular issue will come to a head at a time that is consistent with your organizational imperatives, it’s OK to choose that over another issue, as long as it is equally resonant with your grassroots leadership and affected constituency.

    8. Bobo asks organizers to pursue an issue that is non-divisive, but I think that there is a place for issues that are divisive in the ways desired by the organizers or organization. You don’t want an issue that will split your core constituency, but sometimes it is in your strategic interest to choose an issue that will divide people in such a way that your core population coalesces and begins to see themselves as more of a community. Relationships are everything in organizing—so consider how this issue builds relationships among constituencies whose self-interest you see as tied, and whose partnership you see as essential to your goals.

    9. Does the issue meet other key needs for this stage of your organization/strategy? Do you need to recruit members from a specific constituency? Raise money? Build a base in a different geography? Issues are the grease that keeps organizations bringing in new members, generating new attention, and building forward and upward, so choose your issues with an eye towards where your organization wants to go.

    10. Does it build leadership and set you up for the next campaign?
    There is no shortage of issues, so you need to always be thinking ahead, even while focusing on this campaign—assuming you win this one, what will you tackle next? Or, if that’s unclear, how will this campaign strengthen your leaders and organization so that you are better equipped to win whatever fight you choose next?

    If you feel that your initial take on the issue fails on some of the above criteria, do not despair. The same problem, cut differently, can make multiple good issues, or can fail to translate into an issue that will resonate and provide the foundation for a good campaign, so you don’t necessarily have to abandon your emphasis on this particular social problem, but you might want to revisit how you have parsed it.

    The process of cutting the issue must, obviously, be done collaboratively with those affected and those who will be responsible for moving your campaign (no one wants to fight someone else’s fight!). Once you have defined your issue, you must stick with that definition unless/until you make a strategic decision to change course (any inconsistencies in target, demand, or scope will open opportunities for evasion and denial by your opponents). You may run a campaign with multiple issues simultaneously, direct different issues at different targets, and involve different constituencies in different slices. An organization that I think does this well is Jobs with Justice. Their core social problem relates to poor working conditions in the United States. They address this problem with dozens of issues (see ‘campaigns’), related to right to organize, immigrant workers’ rights, minimum wage, living wage ordinances, health care benefits, corporate-driven globalization, corporate accountability, and economic development. From these issues come their strategies, which are highly context-driven, but the end result is (while not perfectly) fairly cohesive and quite remarkably effective.

    Some examples that we use in class (I’d love to see other examples, as I’m always trying to enhance what I can present to make this come alive):

  • ‘Poverty’ is a social problem, while ‘poverty-level wages for full-time workers at Wal-Mart’ is an issue, as is ‘inadequate child support guarantees for single-parent families’, or ‘decimation of General Assistance grants for single adults with mental illness’
  • ‘Hunger’ is a social problem, while ‘inadequate levels of Food Stamp benefits for two-parent families with children’ or ‘imminent closure of the only local food pantry’ is an issue
  • ‘Racism’ is a social problem, while ‘City Hall’s failure to hire minorities for professional positions in levels that correspond with their percentage of the population’ is an issue

    What social problems are driving your organizing and advocacy work today? What issues have you cut from them? Is your campaign struggling with this right now? Do you have other examples of social conditions that are not seen as problematic in our society? How can instructors present this content to be most applicable to student organizing and advocacy work?

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