14. Social Services

Begin in agreement, for example: We have a responsibility to protect innocent children in our communities.

Our values: Security, safety, protection, quality of life, responsibility

Our vision: As a society, we have a responsibility to protect people in our communities who are vulnerable and can’t meet basic needs on their own. Whether they are children, the elderly, disabled, or victims of illness, crime, natural disaster or something else, we cannot deny our fellow citizens the basic necessities of life. Three policies are crucial: (1) expand basic services to cover all the vulnerable people who need them; (2) stop the war on drug users that has cut them off from assistance; and (3) help charities that provide important social services, including food, housing, clothing, job training and legal representation.

Progressive policies often involve the delivery of social services. They require the active participation of government as a protector, manager or referee. You need Americans to accept government in those roles, but it can be a challenge. Progressives must navigate a minefield of negative stereotypes and preconceptions.

When you describe progressive social policies, what’s the best way to talk about government services? The short answer is to avoid the processes of government and focus on the benefits.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .



Public health and safety



Why . . .

Persuadable voters don’t like government in the abstract. The words government and bureaucracy bring to mind scenes of unfairness, inefficiency and frustration, so don’t provoke those negative associations. Similarly, don’t call the federal government Washington unless you intend to invoke a powerful negative reaction.

Voters, however, like the results of government—public health and safety, public amenities, and a powerful entity mediating disputes and protecting residents from harm. So when you can, focus on the ends of government and avoid the means.

In fact, avoid saying government altogether.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .


Community, Society



Why . . .

When voters hear the word government, they may think of stereotypical examples of frustration: the surly health inspector, the incompetent tax help line, or the slow-as-molasses Department of Motor Vehicles.

Instead of government, talk about how we, our community, or our society should protect children, the elderly, the disabled, or hardworking families that can’t make ends meet. Government may not always be popular, but we are. People will understand what you’re saying.

When you’re talking about basic social services:

Don’t say . . . Say . . .

Social services

Safety net


Basic needs, basic living standards


Assistance, support

Can’t make ends meet

Why . . .

As you surely know, there is a strong stigma attached to the word welfare; don’t use the term. The stigma is connected to the idea that recipients of government assistance are lazy and/or cheaters. Whenever possible, avoid phrases like social services and safety net and instead talk about basics or necessities.

Even more important than the way you describe a social services program is how you describe the people who receive services.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .

The poor, people in poverty

Welfare recipients


People in need of temporary assistance

Children, people with disabilities, the vulnerable

Working families, working to provide for their families


Why . . .

Outside of the progressive base, it is difficult to convince Americans to support a policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families and their friends. So whenever possible, show voters that they personally benefit from your policy, even when that benefit is indirect. Argue that the policy is for us, not them.

When you can’t avoid talking about aiding other people, make sure to describe them as deserving. You can explain they are the vulnerable in society—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—some of whom need assistance. When the recipients are adults, say that they are hardworking or want to work. And because the programs you support undoubtedly benefit them, freely use the word families. We are pro-family, the radical right is not.

And as mentioned previously, persuadable voters are more strongly moved by a plea framed as protecting people from being denied needs, necessities or protections than one framed as giving the exact same public service, especially when it’s called a right or benefit.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Give rights or benefits Don’t deny necessities or protections

In sum, talk about social services like this:

Say . . .
The United States is a great and powerful nation. That means, in part, that we have the responsibility to protect people in need, including children, the elderly, the disabled, and the victims of natural disaster or crime. But also, it means we need laws and programs that support every American who works hard and plays by the rules. This strengthens our economy and our society. It makes a better community for all of us.