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Shifting Frames: Considerations for Policy Equity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nakeina E. Douglas-Glenn
May 26, 2020

Issue framing is a significant component of defining problems in public policy. It determines which issues make it into the agenda universe, which groups are valued as significant in the process and ultimately what narratives are ushered through for consideration. Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen several shifts in the framing of the policy conversations weighted heavily on the cultural positionality of particular groups. Subsequently, we witnessed the positive construction of populations and the extension of benefits throughout the pandemic, as stated in 1993 research by Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram.

  • The issues of residing in close quarters dominated the early discourse and rang the alarm about the virus’s rampant impact on populations in our nation’s long-term care, senior and assisted living facilities and jails and prisons.
  • The conversation highlighted abundant admiration for teachers and essential and frontline workers to an extent not previously expressed. Of course, the more professionalized of these services were already highly regarded by society. 
  • The pandemic brought the spotlight of heroism to frontline positions in food service, public works and utilities and postal and shipping services as professions to be revered because of their utility in our collective time of need.
  • There were universal rallying cries and support delivered for identity groups including Asian Americans who suffered public backlash as a result of the virus’s suspected origin; for immigrants banned from our borders for no justifiable reason; and for victims of intimate and domestic violence whom we reassured were not trapped in their circumstances even in the presence of shelter-in-place orders.
  • Even protesters, self-identified as patriots, invoked a counter-narrative of our current circumstances emphasizing freedom of speech and assembly and their fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness by earning a living, held a series of public demonstrations nationwide that violated stay-at-home orders.

How we acknowledge, dismiss, and extend policy benefits to populations is deeply rooted in narratives based on norms and beliefs constructed within a specific socio-historical context, as demonstrated by 1988 research by Murray Edelman. This context provides a lens through which to understand why we move some groups in and out of frames with ease, and others with reluctance. The legacy of structural racism undermines the positive characterization of racial and ethnic minorities in the policy arena, rendering these groups negatively constructed and powerless by design. For example, despite the significant number of African Americans, Latinx and Native Americans who are disproportionately represented among the cases and deaths from the virus, they have not been constructed as policy-advantaged groups.

Instead, initial calls of inquiry and concern gave way to classic blame for lack of personal responsibility. These groups were not embraced with the same level of reverence as the former groups. They were admonished for poor nutritional choices, deviant health behaviors, close proximity dwelling, limited exercise and preexisting health conditions with little to no mention of the institutional and structural maladies that permitted these conditions to flourish unchecked in their communities. This social construction of their identity was grounded in widely held beliefs about the behaviors and actions of minority populations that continue to rationalize situating them as undeserving in the framing and distribution of policy benefits afforded to others.

COVID-19 affords us the opportunity to adjust how we socially construct groups, reframing the resulting policy conversations. An opportunity exists for us to alter these conversations and concentrate on groups disadvantaged by the system. We can leverage the chance to transition groups between socially constructed designations for more favorable posturing. We have seen evidence of society relocating groups from one constructed narrative to another. Our reimagination of teachers, frontline and essential workers, for example, demonstrates the possibility to forgo previous adverse constructions in favor of positive policy positioning. Additionally, relying on the compounding influence of intersecting identities can aid in redirecting the course of the conversation, shifting more considerable attention to the needs of these communities, as shown by 2005 research from Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram. By leveraging constructs across identities, we can adjust the negative, singular construction for marginalized and disadvantaged groups. 

COVID-19 has had significant impact on social, economic and political institutions, making it nearly impossible for the system to return to normal, at least in the short-term. These institutions have perpetuated inequality for generations and are revealing the unequal effects of their policies across many populations. Equity concerns are a consistent unifying factor across each of the groups brought to the forefront by COVID-19. Hence, there is an opportunity to reframe the socio-political narrative to center equity in broad policy areas. Universally accepting that intentional decisions in the policy process have created existing conditions removes the burden from the groups negatively constructed, and in many ways disenfranchised, and centers it within the agenda universe as a fundamental understanding of its mode of operation. The policy agenda is changing rapidly and will continue to shift and adjust to the challenges posed by the pandemic. As reflected in Joe Soss’s 2005 article, Making Clients and Citizens: Welfare Policy as a Source of Status, Belief, and Action, continuing our commitment to draw the connection between social construction theory and public policy helps to change the context of policy discussions. Capitalizing on the temporary gains in the policy decisions made now will hopefully influence long-term outcomes, positioning positive counter-narratives to be elevated and sustained to the national agenda.


Author: Nakeina E. Douglas-Glenn is director of The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute and associate professor in the Center for Public Policy, both housed in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the university’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation. Twitter handle: @nakeina and @CPPatVCU

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