7.1 Narrative, Messaging, and Storytelling Recommendations
- Craft a shared narrative and uplift each other’s voices and concerns
- Focus on real-world economic challenges
- Document and explain unequal obstacles
- Highlight systemic solutions for systemic problems
- Show the connections
- Acknowledge and confront deep-seated racial stereotypes
- Build on policies with high levels of support
7.2 Engaging Strategic Audiences
- Activating the base
- Persuading undecided audiences
- Engaging those most affected
7.3 Future Research
- Include perspectives of overlooked communities
- Make a distinction between poverty and inequality
- Avoid stereotypical or negative language in survey design
NARRATIVE, MESSAGING, AND STORYTELLING RECOMMENDATIONS
7.1.1 CRAFT A SHARED NARRATIVE AND UPLIFT EACH OTHER’S VOICES AND CONCERNS
Anti-poverty voices are relatively prominent in the public discourse, but they are diffuse, lacking a coherent narrative that can persuade undecided audiences or counter the disciplined narrative of their most frequent opponents.
We recommend that while anti-poverty leaders and groups maintain their individual perspectives and priorities, they also craft a shared narrative in which they:
- Emphasize the values of equal opportunity and community.
- Highlight systemic causes.
- Describe a path from poverty to economic participation.
- Promote effective solutions and successes.
- Invoke a positive role for government.
Shared messaging should build on public concerns about growing inequality, low wages, and long-term unemployment while educating audiences about less visible forces like racial and gender bias, globalization, and tax and labor policies.
Using Pop Culture to Highlight Poverty
Movies, songs, and memes, and breaking news can allow you to reach far larger audiences than traditional news. For example: anticipating the release of the Oscar-nominated movie The Help (about African American domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi), the National Domestic Workers Alliance started their #BeTheHelp campaign, capitalizing on the movie’s popularity to raise awareness of the struggles of modern domestic workers. The link to the popular film attracted the attention of both news and pop culture media outlets, which helped audiences understand the issues and the need for change.
7.1.2 FOCUS ON REAL-WORLD ECONOMIC CHALLENGES
Public opinion data suggests that Americans understanding of poverty is less abstract and data-driven. Communications must move beyond official government definitions and instead touch on the real-world challenges facing many Americans, while also highlighting the solutions.
7.1.3 DOCUMENT AND EXPLAIN UNEQUAL OBSTACLES
Researchers have amply documented the disparate obstacles that contribute to higher poverty rates among communities of color, women, immigrants, and other demographic groups. Yet there is still a dearth of reporting on those dynamics—and for that reason, among others, many audiences are skeptical that such obstacles still exist. Moreover, research and experience show unchallenged subconscious stereotypes will infect attitudes about poverty generally and erode support for positive solutions. Our communications need to both explore and explain this evidence, as well as tell the human stories behind it. A focus on unequal obstacles—not only unequal outcomes or disparities—is an important part of that formula.
7.1.4 HIGHLIGHT SYSTEMIC SOLUTIONS FOR SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS
While news reports generally ascribe poverty to systemic causes, they do so through fleeting references to general trends such as plant closings, the scarcity of jobs, or the “weak economy.” Few stories explain root causes in any detail, and forces behind the disparate impact of poverty based on race, ethnicity, and gender receive practically no attention.However, our research shows that a majority of Americans agree that “the primary cause of America’s problems is an economic system that results in continuing inequality and poverty,” so there is an opening for advocates to talk about the systemic underpinnings of poverty and system-wide changes needed to address it. Because many Americans are not knowledgeable about effective solutions to poverty, anti-poverty policies and programs that have demonstrated positive results, along with research pointing the way to positive outcomes, should be made more visible, as should the positive role that government plays in creating opportunity.
7.1.5 SHOW THE CONNECTIONS
The idea that we are interconnected and all in this together is crucial to the success of anti-poverty communications. Americans intuitively understand that increasing inequality and poverty hold back the economy and country as a whole and also create an environment in which serious social prob- lems develop and worsen. But their thinking on poverty easily defaults to an extreme “personal responsibility” and “bad decisions” frame. Both showing and telling how we’re all affected and connected—through images, research, spokespeople, and storytelling, as well as specific messaging—is crucial.
7.1.6 ACKNOWLEDGE AND CONFRONT DEEP-SEATED RACIAL STEREOTYPES
Americans strongly believe that opportunity should not be hindered by race, gender, ethnicity, or other aspects of who we are. However, much of the public is skeptical of the existence of racial discrimination in particular, and negative racial stereotypes about poor people persist among many Americans.
We need to acknowledge and confront these deep-seated stereotypes. To do that, our messaging on poverty needs to take into account that race matters in at least four crucial ways:
- Stereotypes and bias warp perceptions of poor people.
- Stereotypes and bias can undermine support for solutions.
- Views and beliefs about poverty differ significantly across demographic groups.
- People’s conscious values on racial equity are generally more positive than their subconscious stereotypes.
Taken together, these trends call for talking about race explicitly and strategically, through the lens of shared values. Keep these guidelines in mind when talking about barriers that hamper opportunity for diverse populations and promoting solutions:
- Show that it’s about all of us. Remind audiences that racial equity is not just about people of color; achieving racial equity upholds our values and benefits our entire society. For example, lax federal regulators allowed predatory subprime lenders to target communities of color, only to see that practice spread across communities, putting our entire economy at risk.
- Over-document the barriers to equal opportunity—especially racial bias. Don’t lead with evidence of unequal outcomes alone, which can sometimes reinforce stereotypes and blame. Amply document how people of color frequently face stiff and unequal barriers to opportunity. For example:
- Don’t begin by discussing the income gap between whites and African Americans
- Do lead by talking about how studies have found that employment agencies frequently preferred less qualified white applicants to more qualified black applicants.
- Acknowledge the progress we’ve made. This helps to persuade skeptical audiences to lower their defenses and have a reasoned discussion rooted in reality rather than rhetoric.
- Present data on racial disparities through a contribution model instead of a deficit model. When we present evidence of unequal outcomes, we should make every effort to show how closing those gaps will benefit society as a whole. The fact that the Latino college graduation rate is a fraction of the white rate also means that closing the ethnic graduation gap would result in many more college graduates each year to help America compete and prosper in a global economy—it’s the smart thing to do as well as the right thing to do.
- Be thematic instead of episodic. Select stories that demonstrate institutional or systemic causes and solutions over stories that largely focus on individual choices.
- Use opportunity as a bridge, not a bypass. Opening conversations with the ideal of opportunity helps to emphasize society’s role in affording a fair chance to everyone. But starting conversations there does not mean avoiding discussions of race. We suggest bridging from the value of opportunity to the roles of racial equity and inclusion in fulfilling that value for all.
7.1.7 BUILD ON POLICIES WITH HIGH LEVELS OF SUPPORT
A number of anti-poverty strategies receive high levels of support from the public. Lifting up these popular solutions while explaining and promoting more complex or less popular ones can help to build broader and more lasting support. Solutions with the greatest support include:
- Raising the federal minimum wage.
- Increasing taxes on those earning over $1 million annually.
ENGAGING STRATEGIC AUDIENCES
Key to building the national will to address poverty is activating the base of existing supporters while persuading undecided groups over time. That, in turn, requires prioritizing strategic audiences by:
7.2.1 ACTIVATING THE BASE
The most fertile ground for anti-poverty policy and activism lies with self- identifying low-income Americans, black Americans, and Latinos.
These groups should be prioritized for organizing and calls to action.
7.2.2 PERSUADING UNDECIDED AUDIENCES
Millennials, independent voters, women, low-income Republicans, and people of faith are disproportionately open and persuadable on poverty issues. Evangelical Christians, for example, seem to be increasingly in play; nearly 7 in 10 (67.8 percent) of them agree that “unequal treatment facing Americans living in poverty is a serious problem.”
7.2.3 ENGAGING THOSE MOST AFFECTED
Public opinion research suggests that low-income Americans, while knowledgeable about the realities of living in poverty and interested in change, tend to lack information about structural causes and solutions and are doubtful about their influence in society. Providing that information, along with opportunities for leadership and civic engagement, should be priorities.
The following section outlines suggestions for future research and new approaches to polling and survey research.
7.3.1 INCLUDE PERSPECTIVES OF OVERLOOKED COMMUNITIES
Current data is lagging behind the reality of the racial and ethnic makeup of America, and public opinion polling needs to focus more on the opinions of Asian Americans, Native Americans, biracial/multiracial Americans, and other communities of color. Future research should oversample these frequently overlooked communities, in addition to disaggregating data by national origin and other characteristics.
7.3.2 MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN POVERTY AND INEQUALITY
Over the years, public opinion research has included questions about inequality that often conflate inequality of outcomes (such as disparities in health outcomes, wealth, and income) with inequality of opportunities (such as access to quality education, housing, and employment). This lack of distinction presents major challenges to interpreting public opinion on inequality. There is a pressing need to adopt more sophisticated analysis of public perceptions of poverty and inequality, including greater exploration of the distinction between public perception of “inequality” versus “perpetual poverty”.
7.3.3 AVOID STEREOTYPICAL OR NEGATIVE LANGUAGE IN SURVEY DESIGN
The language used in survey and polling questions often makes use of terms or categories that carry negative social connotations, such as “poor” or “lower class”—labels that people may be eager to reject. Sociologists and psychologists have explored at length the social and political forces that influence low-income individuals to reject such categorization and that influence both high- and low-earners to self-identify as middle class, regardless of actual income. More open-ended questions that allow people to self-identify and define the issue of poverty and inequality for themselves should provide more insightful results and improve public opinion research.