Read those two headlines. Now, what is your first impression? Probably that Portland is on the verge of mass homelessness and that one political party doesn’t want to help needy individuals.
Back before online news was a thing, there was an adage in print media: everyone reads the headline, no one reads the correction. For most journalists and editors, they took the responsibility seriously; getting it wrong could ruin lives. They would still try to create captive, alluring headlines to entice readers to move down a column inch and get into the meat of an article.
With the advent of the internet, we invented a new term for overly sensationalized titles: clickbait. However, the nature of reading stories has changed. Rather than move your eyes slightly to view the piece, you need to affirmatively click on the bait. And people seem unwilling to do so.
One study indicated 59 percent of headlines on social media were shared by people who hadn’t read the article. NPR and the website I F __ing Love Science created dummy articles with catchy headlines as a social experiment. Turns out people would share, comment, debate, accuse, and insult — all without ever clicking through and getting in on the joke.
Trying to convey lots of nuanced information in a single sentence is difficult. That same challenge is present when it comes to referenda questions. Question 2 on the statewide ballot asks:
Do you want Maine to expand Medicaid to provide healthcare coverage for qualified adults under age 65 with incomes at or below 138% of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 means $16,643 for a single person and $22,412 for a family of two?
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and his team did an admirable job packing a lot of detail into few words. However, how much do you think a “yes” answer will cost the state budget? Nothing? $10 million? How about $110 million in every biennial spending bill, assuming that all assumptions are 100 percent true. Do you see that in the question?
Or let’s go back to the headlines which opened this article. No, the majority of Portland is not about to be turned out onto the street. The report in question assumes no more than 30 percent of a household’s income should be spent on rent and applies those prices to two-bedroom units. With rent averaging $1,052 per month, your household would need to earn $42,000 annually for it to be “affordable.”
Of course, a single 22 year old probably doesn’t need a two-bedroom apartment and roommates are generally not considered a single household. So if two friends are living together, bar tending and making $35,000 each, they would count twice — each roommate a household unto themselves — as being unable to afford average rents. Even though they could split an apartment and pay less than 20 percent of their income for their housing.
When it comes to the “growing gap” between the parties on “helping needy,” the reality is much more nuanced. The question was whether the government should do more in terms of a safety net, even if it means more public debt. Republicans generally say “no” and Democrats say “yes.” No surprise there.
However, GOP-ers have been relatively consistent in their response over the past eight years. The “gap” comes from a big spike in Democrats saying government needs to do more, one which appears to coincide with the election of a Republican to the White House.
These complexities don’t mean the headlines are wrong. Portland does have a housing shortage, and a working single parent may not be able to find a place for their family to live for less than 30 percent of their income. The social safety net is an amalgamated mess, an incoherent mass of good intentions. But defining those problems — let alone fixing them — cannot be summed up in a headline that people may or may not read past.
The same is true with our referendum process. Whether it is rent control in Portland, merging Lewiston and Auburn, or the $110 million MaineCare expansion question, these are incredibly complex, challenging, nuanced policy matters not well suited to a “yes” or “no” answer.
So read past the headline. Read past the ballot question. And if you do all that, hey, at least you’ll have information from which to make an informed decision. That’s all anyone can ask.