How did facts become controversial?

In preparing for the presentation on the safety net that I did this week, I had several conversations with the event organizers about concerns about how the content would be perceived. And, while I am the first to acknowledge that I have very strong opinions and do not hesitate to share them (ahem, hence this whole blog, basically), much of this dialogue sort of baffled me.

Because the presentation was about the state of the safety net and how we got here, with only a little discussion about how we might envision an alternative future (most of that last piece was reserved for table conversations among participants). And, while certainly questions about the kinds of policy preferences that would build (and, in some cases rebuild) a safety net robust enough to really catch people include value judgments (there is no one ‘right’ way to provide economic security for American households, and certainly room to disagree about the best set of policies to approach that goal), the facts are rather indisputable, right?

There are holes in our safety net:

  • In Kansas, more than 4,800 developmentally disabled adults and children are on waiting lists for Medicaid-funded services in community-based programs. At least 3,250 people with physical disabilities are also waiting for services.
  • Only 61.71% of unemployed Kansans receive Unemployment Insurance.
  • Only 60% of Kansas children ages 3-5 were enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs in 2009.
  • More than 14% of Kansas families are food insecure and nearly 200,000 Kansans turn to emergency food banks each year.

Even as more Americans depend on it:

  • In 2010, more Americans lived in poverty than in the 52 years since the nation began tracking poverty statistics.
  • In 2010, Kansas’ child poverty rate exceeded national figures, with 23.7% of Kansas children in poverty, compared to 18% in 2009.
  • Number of households in the U.S. receiving food stamps has nearly doubled since 2007 (to 21.4 million).
  • Nationally, 7.1 million households —16.6 million people — paid more than half of their incomes for rent or lived in severely substandard housing in 2009, a jump of more than 20 percent since 2007. 

And the safety net has retreated to a more and more limited scope:

  • Kansas’ SNAP participation rates (63% of all eligible families; only 51% of eligible working poor) rank in the bottom quarter of all states.
  • In Kansas, a household cannot earn more than 35% of the federal poverty line to be eligible for TANF.
  • Earning more than 32% of the federal poverty line disqualifies a family for Medicaid in Kansas.
  • Kansas’ Medicaid program does not provide any routine dental care for adults.
  • The purchasing power of cash assistance dropped more than 20% between 1996 and 2011.
  • Fewer than 25% of eligible families receive housing assistance.
  • Even at its funding peak (2009), LIHEAP only covered approximately 25% of eligible households.

Where there is great controversy, of course, is in the framing of these realities as a problem. Because we know that social problems are in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak.

And we especially diverge when facing the facts about how we got to the situation in which we now find ourselves: budget cuts, the move to block grants, the proliferation of tax cuts and preferential tax policy that erodes the revenue foundation, privatization and the renegotiation of the social contract, and attacks on people in poverty, in particular.

This post isn’t about defending my version of events or rehashing the presentation (which, I think, went pretty well), but about raising for our collective consideration the fact (which maybe should have been obvious to me before now) that versions of events are different, in the first place.

That one advocate’s economy-stimulating stimulus plan is (retrospectively, not just as a competing proposal) another’s abject failure. That one advocate’s work incentive refundable tax credit is another’s wasteful giveaway. That one person’s painful budget cut is another’s efficiency measure. That one advocate’s prolonged recessionary job market is another’s natural correction.

That one person’s shredded safety net is another’s ‘step in the right direction’.

I don’t have any profound answers here, no grand insights.

I heard the concerns about what it means for an organization to convene a conversation when some of their stakeholders don’t even agree with the foundational premises, when even the facts are in contention, let alone the implications and conclusions.

I think that stories are part of the answer, and I’m working on some posts for next week about that, but I also want to hear from others who have confronted this challenge of ‘contested history’.

Where do you start, when we’re seeing the same reality through such different lenses? And how can we hope to get to the same place, if we can’t agree on where we’re starting?

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