Food Stamps and the Curse of Knowledge

**In response to some of the comments and questions from the last post about finding the essential core of a policy issue, I’ve been thinking more about why that’s so hard for us, as experts, and about what might help. This post, too, builds on some of the content from Made to Stick, specifically the idea that it is pretty easy to know too much about an issue. My advocacy over the past 8 months or so with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program issue in Kansas, again, illustrates that. I hope that my failures are instructive!**

We feel like we have to be such experts, don’t we, before we can step forward on an issue.

I was providing some consulting to a coalition earlier this spring, about how they could advance their advocacy interests, and there was a cluster within the group that really felt that they had to (their words) “completely understand an issue, from 360 degrees, before we can say anything”.

We can become paralyzed by our own need for certainty, sucked into a ceaseless search for more, and more, and more information.

And, so, then, once we have that information, and once we really are experts, at least in the sense of feeling confident in our accumulated knowledge and practice wisdom, how can we possibly believe that we shouldn’t at least attempt to share that knowledge with the world (or at least our policy targets)?

How can we believe that trying to communicate all that we know can, actually, be our own worst enemy?

When I first got panicked calls from the direct-service staff at El Centro, Inc., about the mothers who were coming in crying because their children’s food benefits had been cut off, I knew almost nothing about how the SNAP program calculated eligibility. It took me a few weeks to get a working understanding, and even longer to be able to really articulate what the policy had been, what it now was, and what that meant.

And, so, I thought I should share.

I created charts that showed how different family configurations fared, at different income levels. I used the phrase ‘pro-rata share’ so many times that my oldest son asked me (just from eavesdropping on my phone conversations) what in the world that means. I had to make ‘ineligibles’ a word, so that my spellcheck wouldn’t reject it. I found myself correcting other advocates, spending hours explaining the formula, and immigration law, and public benefit definitions, to media outlets and legislators and even my beleaguered husband.

And, still, when the state agency came to brief the Senate committee, I had to feed the senators questions, because they still didn’t really understand. Worse? Some people stopped caring.

They could chalk it up to being “really complex”, which can be code for “nebulous and shifty and probably not worth my energy anyway”.

Not a good place to be.

In addition to learning about the essence of a message, and how to figure out that, in this case, only a tiny bit needed to stick, I learned this other important truth:

We have to learn to talk about a policy like we don’t know everything about it, even if we’re really, really proud of how much we know.

Yes, finding answers requires that we become experts, and, yes, we feel great about that and think it should count for something, as though there were gold stars to be awarded for those who just know the most in the room.

But it doesn’t. And there aren’t.

And knowing too much, or, at least, forgetting that that can be a problem, hurts us when it comes time to tell others what they need to know.

Which is what really matters.

Because what we want, after all, is for policymakers to know that they know enough to know what they want to do…and we want that to be what we want them to do, too. We don’t want to confuse them, or shame them, or make them throw up their hands at the hopelessness of the quest to conquer this particular intellectual challenge.

So we can ‘wow’ our moms, or our pets, or maybe even some really good friends with what incredible experts we are.

And then we need to get comfortable talking about our issues like normal people.

Because they’re the ones we need to convince to do something about the problems.

And THAT will break the curse.

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3 responses to “Food Stamps and the Curse of Knowledge

  1. Thank you. This was a great post.

  2. Reblogged this on The Political Social Worker and commented:
    This makes so much sense.

  3. Michelle Wassenaar

    We do want to be experts, don’t we? For me I think it comes out of a sense of responsibility – what if I’m wrong? What if I recommend the wrong thing? This issue is so nuanced it’s not just soundbites!

    Also, I think that academia sets us up to think there’s gold stars for whoever knows the most in the room. It certainly feels like that’s how a lot of papers and “class participation” gets graded sometimes! But I think you make a good point that even if we do know everything (and, really, can anyone know everything?), other people don’t care.

    Thanks for this post. Definitely some good food for thought.

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