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Understanding “Power Talk”: Language, Public Policy, and Democracy

  • Jocelyn Elise Crowley (a1), Margaret Watson (a2) and Maureen R. Waller (a3)

This project expands upon social construction studies by critically examining the discourse patterns of two very different groups as they discuss their problems with the child support enforcement system: fathers' rights members (mostly white, middle class fathers who are organizing for emotional support and to reform the child support system) and fathers with children on welfare (mostly poor, African-American fathers). We use standard, qualitative analytical methods on primary, in-depth interview data collected from fathers' rights members, and compare that with in-depth interview data drawn from fathers with children on welfare. In brief, we find three overlapping perceptions in this policy area: child support awards are economically hurtful to fathers, child support obligations are not adjusted for other types of support, and child support enforcement discourages parental cooperation. However, we also show that while there is broad overlap in terms of the general nature of these complaints, each group's members use very different language to describe their difficulties. Fathers' rights members are much more likely to remain connected to the system, and while challenging current policy, do not champion lawbreaking as a viable means of demonstrating their opposition. Fathers with children on welfare, on the other hand, speak in terms that reflect their disconnection from these policies, and frequently reveal their subsequent choice to engage in evasive and even illegal behavior as viable means of expressing their dissatisfaction. Finally, we conclude that these different ways of speaking about public policy problems can have important implications for policymaker responsiveness, and ultimately, each group's political inclusion in a democratic society.Jocelyn Elise Crowley is Associate Professor of Public Policy at The Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey ( Margaret Watson has her Master's Degree in Public Policy from The Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey ( Maureen R. Waller is Assistant Professor of Policy Analysis & Management, Cornell University ( The authors would like to thank Joe Soss, Sandy Schram, Anne Schneider, Helen Ingram, M.B. Crowley, the Columbia University School of Social Work Seminar Series participants, the University of Washington West Coast Poverty Center Seminar Series participants, the NICHD Transition to Fatherhood Project, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on this manuscript.

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Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
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