Is Federal-Level Advocacy Disempowering?

As some of you know, I’ve been writing for the Poverty in America blog on as well as on federal and District-level issues here. But the powers-that-be have told me that my pieces don’t fit into their new strategy.

I’ve been thinking about this — not the loss of the gig, but the underpinnings of the strategy. I’m assuming here that Ben Rattray, the founder and CEO of, believes what he told his bloggers while I was still among them.

According to Rattray, the biggest opportunity for advocacy now is local, not national. Targeting the President or Congress is a “disempowering model of social change” — both because chances of victory are slim and because an individual voice makes so little difference.

By contrast, there are “tens of thousands of issues that people can organize around in their own communities.” These are “eminently winnable” and can be significantly advanced by a petition and/or blog postings. Rattray’s goal, in fact, is at least one victory a day.

Now, I’ve got no brief for campaigns that are genuinely futile. But I doubt that the vast majority of campaigns at the federal level are.

In many cases, advocates won’t get exactly what they want — at least, not right away. That old saw about how the sausage is made means there’s a lot of compromise. That’s frustrating I would guess for those intent on counting up victories.

But won’t things be much worse if none of us advocates for the nationwide interests of low-income and other disadvantaged people? Should we feel disempowered when the result isn’t a clear cut victory?

Consider, for example, the just-signed law reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. The bill produced by the House Education and Labor Committee was stronger in many ways than the Senate bill the House adopted.

But, at the end of the day, it was the Senate bill or nothing — at least until next year, when prospects would surely have been dimmer. And, as the Food Research and Action Center says, the new law “has many important and excellent provisions.”

FRAC doesn’t view the outcome as a defeat, though it doesn’t view it as a done deal either. Should we who advocated for the stronger bill — and against the food stamp pay-for — feel disempowered when the lead nutrition advocacy organization doesn’t?

And is it really less empowering for an individual to join in a campaign that can win only with the resources of national organizations and massive grassroots support?

I personally feel empowered when I feel connected to something big and important. The fact that my lone voice doesn’t make a critical difference doesn’t matter.

Surely other people feel this way or they wouldn’t sign national advocacy petitions, call their members of Congress when asked to, join national e-mail groups, etc.

Granted, local campaigns can achieve changes that make a difference to some portion of the population. Low-wage workers in San Francisco, for example, are better off since the local paid sick leave law was passed.

And sometimes successful local campaigns inspire others. Flaws notwithstanding, the District of Columbia’s paid sick leave law is a case in point, as are the numerous campaigns under way across the country.

But so much of what a local government can and can’t do depends on federal policy. Consider how many of our key safety net programs are so-called federal-state partnerships. Both the federal rules and the funding levels shape the services available and to whom.

We may, for example, feel that the District should allow participants in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to spend their full work preparation hours in adult basic education, English as a second language and/or literacy programs until they develop the basic skills that decent jobs in our local labor market require.

But federal regulations won’t allow this. So it’s futile to “organize around” the issue in our local community, demanding that the District adopt a more flexible definition of “vocational education training” than Councilmembers Michael Brown and Tommy Wells have proposed.

The sensible course, I think, is to join with organizations that will advocate for a broader definition of training for work when Congress gets around to reauthorizing TANF.

Same, of course, is true for a vast number of other programs that affect low-income people. That flawed new child nutrition law will ultimately help pay for the better school meals that the District’s Healthy Schools Act mandates.

All of which isn’t to say that Rattray’s wrong in asserting that there’s “widespread disenchantment with advocacy among the broader public” — meaning here the public that generally favors progressive causes.

It’s hard not to feel disenchanted these days when we see the sharp turn to the right and the compromises progressives are making.

But I’m quite sure the answer isn’t to retreat to winnable local causes. What do you think?

One Response to Is Federal-Level Advocacy Disempowering?

  1. […] Kathryn Baer wonders whether it’s worth it, as some argue, for anti-poverty advocates to concentrate on winnable […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s