bad does not imply worse

Christopher Jencks makes a characteristically wise point (after displaying a graph that shows that real poverty has declined a lot since 1959, and a bit since 2009):

The equation of “bad” with “worse” is so tight in American political discourse that when I tell my friends or my students that “there is still a lot of poverty, but less than there used to be,” they have trouble remembering both halves of the sentence. Some remember that there is still a lot of poverty. Others remember that there is less than there used to be. Few remember both.

I observe the same phenomenon constantly. The problem, for example, with our students’ civic knowledge is not that it has declined. Scores on civics tests have been remarkably stable over a long period. It’s just that civic knowledge is (and used to be) too low. The same is true of voter turnout: quite flat since the 1970s, but at a problematically low level. I offer additional examples from social policy in “why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” It seems that you cannot get attention for a problem unless you pose it as a recent and alarming deterioration from a previously superior state. That is an obstacle to taking our most stubborn problems seriously.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.