Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Liberal research? Conservative research? Or reasonable and credible research for all?

People love to label. Yet, as one of my professors and mentors used to say, “Every label is a libel.” That is, we tend to classify individuals into categories because we think it creates an easier way to perceive and interpret the world, but in so doing, we make many assumptions about those people which probably have no validity.

“Liberal” and “conservative” constitute such labels. What do those terms really mean? What does it matter, for a research organization like Wilder Research, which tries to do high quality, credible work that will benefit everyone in the community?

Over the years, some observers have characterized Wilder Research as liberal; others have characterized us as conservative. However, in all honesty, we have shaped our strategy to appeal to the “reasonable middle,”  who comprise perhaps 80% of the members of our communities. This excludes the 10% on the two extreme ends of the continuum, who won’t listen to any objectively gathered facts and whom we can most likely never please.

Recently, someone made the comment that Wilder Research tends to focus on “liberal topics.” Sounds simple, but what does that really mean?

For more than 20 years, we have done research related to the achievement gap – the difference in academic performance between white children and children of color. We want to understand all its dimensions and how to prevent it. Who cares about that? I think the reasonable middle cares a great deal.

Some people care because the gap represents an unfair situation. Children come into this world deserving equal opportunity. Some people care because the gap represents a failure of our formal institutions, our families, and everyone else with a stake in this issue to prepare children academically. Some people care because the achievement gap threatens the future livelihood, and potentially the security, of all of us – because children of color comprise the fastest growing segment of our population; they will become the future business leaders, workforce, parents, and leaders of our communities. If they lack skills, our communities will not succeed.

That reasonable middle, those “people who care,” includes both liberals and conservatives.

For more than 20 years as well, we have studied the needs of caregivers – family members, professionals, others who care for dependent children or for adults who require assistance with their daily living needs. We have devoted more attention to the informal, unpaid caregivers than to those employed by organizations; although we have studied both. We have pursued that tack because most of us do caregiving for some portion of our lives, and the demands it places on us can affect our physical and mental health. Moreover, the need for non-institutional caregiving will increase dramatically in the coming decades, as a result of our aging population.

Who cares about caregivers? Again, the reasonable middle cares. That reasonable middle includes conservatives and liberals.

In recent years, we have initiated a number of studies of the “return on investment” (ROI) of various services, usually services delivered to low-income, vulnerable populations. Liberal research because it can demonstrate the many benefits of these programs for our communities? Conservative research because it can lead to economizing, and perhaps even to elimination of ineffective programs? I like to think it’s a blend of both.

We’ve witnessed a lot of political posturing recently – public officials lining up along party lines, seemingly more intent on destroying those on the other side than on working together for the good of the populace. That can fuel our cynicism and tempt us to conclude that efforts to bring together people of differing political persuasions to address our communities’ most pressing issues cannot succeed. I don’t want Wilder Research to fall victim to that cynicism.

A friend of mine once told a joke to illustrate a key difference between conservative and liberal problem-solving. . “If someone is drowning and yelling for help, a conservative walking along the beach will throw a life preserver half way out and agree to pull in the drowning person if that person can independently go the first half of the distance. A liberal in the same situation will throw the life preserver all the way out to the drowning person, but then let go of the rope to walk on looking for the next problem to solve.”

Unfortunately, the stereotypes suggested in that joke contain small grains of truth. Some of our friends and colleagues who say they are liberal can naively assume that developing a new program or linking people to a service is sufficient, that somehow all will work out for the good. On the other hand, some of our friends and colleagues who say they are conservative can too easily overlook the support systems that enabled them to achieve a desirable quality of life, falsely concluding that they “made it completely on their own”.

A recent New York Times article, reprinted in the Pioneer Press, describes a Lindstrom, Minnesota man who seems much too aloof to rational thought for us to hope that he might pay attention to a research study. He claims that he needs no help from the government, and he states that too many Americans live beyond their means and lean on taxpayers to pull them up. Yet, despite his proclamations of “independence”, he benefits from at least two government subsidies: first, the earned income tax credit; and second, the government-funded free/reduced priced lunches which his children receive at school. (So, a citizen who speaks conservatively, but consumes liberally, it appears!)

The current Presidential race has perhaps infected the terms, liberal and conservative, to such an extent that we should not use them anymore, lest we find ourselves attaching very inappropriate labels to people in ways that we don’t intend. Perhaps we should discard the terms.

In the end, I want to devote the energy of Wilder Research to opening our arms to the reasonable middle. Despite all the extremist rhetoric, amplified by the news media, this audience really does exist. We can consider our approach nonpartisan, or multi-partisan, however you want to frame it. With this audience, we can build solutions, always imperfectly, but always making progress.