Executive Summary

Research Overview

This series of reports from The Opportunity Agenda describes the American public discourse on poverty, poor people, and the path to greater economic opportunity. It examines years of public opinion research, mainstream media coverage, and social media content. And it incorporates the input of leaders working to end poverty from different perspectives and approaches. Taken together, this body of work is intended to help anti-poverty leaders, organizations, and allies to build public support for effective solutions.  It also provides useful insights for journalists, news outlets, and commentators who cover—or could cover—this important subject.

Poverty and Public Perception

The promise of economic opportunity is deeply rooted in our nation’s history and consciousness. The basic tenets of the American Dream, that work and persistence should yield financial security, and that where a person starts out in life should not predetermine where he or she ends up, have long been integral to our national psyche and political rhetoric. The notion that our society has a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable among us has both spiritual and civic underpinnings. And, at least since the end of the twentieth century, the belief that what a person looks like and where a person was born should be no obstacle to success has also become a part of our national doctrine.

However, the public discourse regarding the causes of and solutions to poverty has fluctuated widely throughout our history. Attitudes toward people living in poverty continue to be both complex and contentious. Over many decades, public debate has centered on whether poverty is rooted primarily in unequal societal opportunities or in irresponsible choices made by individuals. Also prominent in the debate is the proper role of government in making economic security more widely available. Attitudes toward race, gender, nationality, and other aspects of identity have also played an important, though often implicit, role in the discourse.

Two presidential statements—one by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and the other by Ronald Reagan in 1986—bookend the larger public debate:

[T]o exercise these privileges [of citizenship] takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check. So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates. – Lyndon B. Johnson1

For two centuries now, it’s been families pulling together that has provided the courage, willpower, and sense of security that have enabled millions of Americans to escape poverty and grab hold of the rungs on the ladder of opportunity.… But for the children of child mothers and absentee fathers, there is often only a deepening cycle of futility, hopelessness, and despair. We’re in danger of creating a permanent culture of poverty as inescapable as any chain or bond; a second and separate America, an America of lost dreams and stunted lives. The irony is that misguided welfare programs instituted in the name of compassion have actually helped turn a shrinking problem into a national tragedy. – Ronald W. Reagan2

The current moment finds the nation at a crossroads. A lingering Great Recession, substantial long-   term unemployment, and a high profile, if short-lived, social movement—Occupy Wall Street—have made economic insecurity and inequality more visible and more relevant to far more Americans than in past decades. At the same time, an increasingly polarized electorate, a Tea Party movement rooted in a reduced role for government, and rancorous debates over health care, deficits, taxes, and safety net spending have provided strong counterweights to the public will to address poverty. Cognizant of this roiling landscape, we see a need to more closely examine poverty in the public discourse.

Why study the public discourse on poverty? Our conversations with anti-poverty leaders around the country—researchers, advocates, former government officials, and philanthropists—make clear that understanding and informing how Americans think, feel, and communicate about poverty is crucial to successfully addressing it. The greatest obstacle to the unfinished business of economic opportunity for all, these leaders say, is a failure of national will:

“[There’s a narrative that] poverty is a given, that it’s a choice, that it can’t be changed and therefore, must be accepted. It’s none of those things, but changing it requires a focused, committed, directed effort. So far, we’ve lacked the will.”

“[A major challenge is] misinformed beliefs, mostly driven by corrosive and ill-intended narratives, that poverty is solely caused by laziness, stupidity [and] lack of education. [The public] mostly believes that there will ‘always be the poor...’ and that there aren’t sweeping approaches to diminish poverty.”

“The ‘poverty is a choice’ narrative dominates on the right, while moderates and progressives increasingly understand and embrace structural explanations, such as segregation and poverty wages.”

Additionally, the anti-poverty leaders with whom we spoke agree that finding more effective ways to discuss poverty with a broader audience is a critical ingredient to moving forward with solutions:

“Finding understandable ways to make the connections, to draw the lines from cause to solutions is the challenge facing … policymakers. For communicators, the challenge is how to talk about it in ways that capture funders, policymakers, and others.”

“The anti-poverty sector has increasing communications sophistication and important opportunities to elevate discussions of structural solutions to poverty (e.g., in the context of discussions of growing inequality), but must compete with the dominant narrative of individual self-determination that is promoted in marketing and much of popular culture.”

“We need better, consistent, coherent messages. We all have our organizational, nuanced points of view. It’s probably unrealistic to suggest we speak with one voice. But if we could figure out how to make that happen, it would be awesome.”

Research Elements

Our examination consists of three parts. The first study in the series analyzes, through existing public opinion research, trends in attitudes toward the causes of poverty, perceptions of people living in poverty, support for various solutions, and variations in the opinions held by different demographic groups. The second analyzes mainstream media coverage to determine the dominant and competing narratives, the most prominent voices, the types of commentary, and the information that news consumers typically do and do not receive. The third assesses discussions of poverty in social media—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and online comments—as well as prominent voices and activism via those platforms. The methodologies used in each study are described in the individual reports, and online at www.opportunityagenda.org.

Major Findings

Taken together, the research findings paint a vivid, nuanced, and in many ways, hopeful picture of  the public discourse on poverty. Yet more effective communications are clearly needed. In both public opinion and mainstream media reporting, we found a greater sense of identification with poor people, a higher level of interest in the root causes of poverty, and broader support for some high profile solutions than previously existed. But the implicit classification of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor people persists, as do negative racial and ethnic stereotypes. Particularly in social media, we also found hostility toward people living in poverty. Americans of different backgrounds and demographics, moreover, tend to have starkly different views on many poverty questions.

Despite increasing public acceptance of poverty’s structural causes, there is little in-depth knowledge or media coverage of those causes, or of effective solutions. Similarly, a sophisticated discussion of unequal opportunity based on race, ethnicity, gender, or other aspects of identity is mostly lacking.

Whereas anti-poverty leaders, advocates, and policymakers are among the most prominent voices in both traditional and social media, they tend to lack a coherent narrative or “big story” rooted in shared values or common, resonant themes. By contrast, their most frequent opponents have a clear and consistent narrative founded in individual responsibility, government dependence, and free markets.

Overall, the research reveals a significant opportunity for those who care about poverty to reframe the debate, build public support, and inspire mass action. But doing so will require sustained and strategic action, as well as a shift in communications. As the economy improves, moreover, the window of opportunity to expand support and activism may close without notice.

We share below a sampling of findings from the three studies. The reports themselves include detailed findings and analyses for each medium.

Public opinion

  • Addressing U.S. poverty is relatively high on the public’s agenda at present; most Americans believe that reducing poverty should be a priority for the federal government.
  • American attitudes toward poverty, poor people, and the role of government tend to be grounded in two competing—but not always mutually exclusive—sets of values: individualism and personal responsibility on the one hand, and equal opportunity and interconnection on the other. For example, significant majorities of Americans simultaneously oppose cutbacks in aid to poor people and believe that poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.
  • A majority of Americans are receptive to a structural explanation for the existence of poverty. Sixty-two percent, for example, agreed with the statement: “the primary cause of America’s problems is an economic system that results in continuing inequality and poverty.”3
  • Negative racial stereotypes about poor people persist among many Americans. In 2010, for example, close to half of the American public (47 percent) agreed that “African Americans have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people because most African Americans just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.”4
  • The most supportive audiences for anti-poverty policy and activism are Democrats, African Americans and Latinos. 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. Millennials, independent voters, women, and people of faith are disproportionately open and persuadable on poverty issues. White Evangelical Christians, for example, seem to be increasingly in play; 53 percent of them agree that “society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal,” while only 35 percent of Republicans do.5

Mainstream media coverage

  • News reporting generally describes the plight of the “newly poor” sympathetically, but   with the unstated subtext that these Americans are different from the “old poor.” The implicit storyline is that the newly poor are victims of structural problems with the economy, while those living in deep poverty are poor for other, largely unexplained, reasons. Stories rarely describe those in deep or persistent poverty in any detail, and few of those Americans are quoted in stories.
  • While news reporters 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 the disparate impact of poverty based on race, ethnicity, and gender receives practically no attention.
  • While there is some coverage of promising local-level solutions, media consumers received little information about the success or failure of state and federal policies.

Social media discourse

  • Social media voices and content with the greatest reach and engagement overwhelmingly painted a sympathetic picture of Americans living in poverty, and drew attention to systemic causes such as the lack of good jobs and the failure of the minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living. They also presented research and statistics that demonstrated the pervasiveness and impact of poverty in the U.S.
  • Among content generated by organizations (for example news outlets, associations, advocacy groups and foundations) and individuals with the broadest reach, progressive-leaning themes and narratives outweighed conservative ones, with more content focusing on preserving and expanding government programs and advocating for good jobs and fair wages. The “individual choices” narrative emerged very infrequently in the content that reached the most audiences, and was typically tied to conservative politicians.
  • The discourse generated by the wider public (individual accounts irrespective of reach), by contrast, often included the narrative that government safety net programs have failed or have actually made things worse for poor people. There were few if any direct mentions of economic policy trends, such as deregulation, privatization, or the decline of unionization, as contributing to poverty. There were indirect references to these concepts, however, particularly in discussions of the decline of quality jobs and livable wages, and readiness among many to blame “greedy” corporations.
  • Despite their smaller numbers, conservative voices are extremely unified in social media. They convey a shared vision of who poor people are, what causes poverty, and what, if anything, can be done to alleviate poverty in the U.S. By contrast, anti-poverty and progressive discourse generally fail to communicate a common idea of who poor people are, the challenges they face, why they are poor, or what can be done about it.


Narrative, messaging, and storytelling

Our research points to a need, as well as an opportunity, for anti-poverty leaders to communicate in new, more impactful ways. Lessons from our three studies include:

  • Craft a shared narrative. While anti-poverty voices are relatively prominent in the public discourse, 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

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.

  • Avoid the simplistic “new poor”/”old poor” dichotomy. While recent media focus on the “new poor” has raised the visibility of certain poverty issues, the framing of those stories also tends to reinforce inaccurate stereotypes about poor people, as well as race, and obscures systemic factors that affect both recently and persistently poor people. Communications should move beyond this illusory distinction. Consistent with that approach, stories about the challenges and progress of communities facing deep poverty are needed to ensure a full and accurate picture. Furthermore, the voices of people in deep and persistent poverty are much needed.
  • 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 our analysis found virtually no reporting on those dynamics and for that reason, among others, many audiences are skeptical that such obstacles still exist. Research and experience show, moreover, that if left unchallenged, subconscious stereotypes will infect attitudes about poverty generally and erode support for all positive solutions. Communications are needed to both explore and explain this evidence, as well as to tell the human stories behind it. A focus on unequal obstacles—not only unequal outcomes or disparities—is an important part of that formula.
  • Highlight systemic solutions. Americans are not knowledgeable about effective solutions to poverty, and news reporting barely scratches the surface of this topic. Anti-poverty policies and programs that have demonstrable positive results, and research pointing the way to positive outcomes, should be made more visible, as should the positive role that government plays in creating ladders of opportunity.
  • 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
    • Helping low-wage workers afford quality child cae
    • Availability of universal pre-K
    • Lowering the cost of college
  • 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 problems 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.

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 key audiences.

  • Activate the base. The most fertile ground for anti-poverty policy and activism lies with Democrats, African Americans and Latinos. These groups should be prioritized for organizing and calls to action.
  • Persuade undecided audiences. Millennials, independent voters, women, and people of faith are disproportionately open and persuadable on poverty issues, and should be prioritized for that purpose.
  • Engage those most affected. Public opinion research suggests that more work needs to be done to raise the awareness of low-income people themselves about the structural causes of poverty, available solutions, and their ability to contribute to change. A credible message of agency and activism, as well as information about causes and solutions, should be a priority for this group. Current and formerly low-income people are also particularly important spokespeople.

Creating an echo chamber

Traditional and social media trends show a predictable pattern: national election events, the release of census numbers, budget debates, and anniversaries of anti-poverty and civil rights events reliably increase attention to poverty. Demonstrations, strikes, and major think-tank reports also frequently generate coverage. We recommend that anti-poverty communicators chart these events well in advance, and prepare a multi-platform media strategy that is both proactive and builds upon the activity of high profile voices. The field should also be more intentional and collaborative about sharing and jointly promoting new research and analysis. These efforts should complement the readiness to respond quickly when relevant, but unpredictable, events occur.

Further research

Additional research is needed to fully understand and inform public attitudes about poverty.

  • Understanding specific populations. Few existing polls oversample populations such as Asian Americans, Native Americans, or LGBT Americans in adequate numbers to explore their views. Research of this kind is an important missing piece, as is multilingual research that can engage respondents who are not fluent in English. These methods can help reach and understand fast- growing communities and many of those most profoundly affected by poverty.6
  • Exploring views on causation. Research is needed to explore if and how Americans connect poverty with economic forces and systems such as globalization, outsourcing, unequal education, and tax, trade, and immigration policies, as well as the decline of unionized workplaces.
  • Deconstructing bias and stereotypes. Social science research shows that conscious and implicit biases play an important role in shaping attitudes about poverty, and undermine support for solutions. Stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, and other aspects of identity lie just beneath the surface of much of the public discourse on these issues. More work is needed to develop communications that root out and overcome bias while educating and activating audiences on the subject of unequal opportunity.
  • Message testing. Additional qualitative and quantitative research is needed to test specific messages, facts, images, and stories for their ability to inform long-term attitude formation and short-term decision-making. The views, voices, and ideas of people living in poverty should be a significant element of that inquiry. For some audiences, social media provide rapid and relatively inexpensive platforms for testing the effectiveness of competing messages.
  • Analyzing ethnic and alternative media. Ethnic media is the fastest growing sector of American journalism, with over 3,000 media outlets reaching more than 57 million consumers.7 While it can be more difficult to study, understanding poverty discourse in these media sources is crucial, especially given the disproportionate support for solutions among many ethnic audiences. Alternative media sources, many of which engage progressive and activist audiences, also warrant close attention.
  • Examining cultural trends. Art, entertainment, and other cultural content reach large audiences and are crucial in moving hearts and minds over time. But while poverty has long been a subject of artistic content and activism, that body of work has not been adequately studied, and cultural strategies are often an afterthought for anti-poverty leaders and coalitions. Studying current cultural trends and connecting with artists and entertainers are much-needed steps in this process.8


More than at any other time in the last half-century, Americans are ready to hear a new, more accurate story about poverty, and to take action to end it. That this is no ordinary time was conveyed by almost all of the leaders whom we  interviewed:

“I do think there is an emerging sense of indignation at the levels of inequality and the spark that the fast food workers lit points the way forward—the idea that work should be respected and valued, not degraded and exploited, seems like a critical way to come at poverty in the twenty-first century.”

“More people believe poverty results from an economy that has failed Americans; there is support for solutions involving jobs, wages, and education.”

“Priority audiences now believe that Social Security and Medicare have worked, have helped everyone, and that they are fair, not hand-outs. I’d like to build on these programs to enable more opportunity.”

“[Audiences believe] that Native peoples face disadvantages because of historic challenges. We  need to build from this to contemporary impact.”

“Priority audiences understand that there are often multiple barriers to economic security and mobility, particularly for people living in poverty or in high-poverty neighborhoods, and understand that government has a role in helping to reduce these barriers.”

As the economy gradually improves, however, empathy for poor people is likely to diminish. And, even today, significant obstacles persist in attitudes as well as media discourse. Anti-poverty leaders and their allies likely have a limited window of opportunity to build public support for transformative change. By combining a sophisticated communications strategy with ongoing research, advocacy, and other approaches, they can meet that challenge.



1 Lyndon B. Johnson, “Special Message to the Congress: The American Promise,” March 15, 1965.
2 Ronald W. Reagan, “Radio Address to the Nation on Welfare Reform,” February 15,1986.
3 PRRI, American Values Survey 2012, September 2012.
4 Gallup/USA Today poll, June 2010.
5 Public Religion Research Institute, American Values Survey, September  2011.
6 A recent national survey by The Opportunity Agenda did oversample Asian Americans, low-income Americans, and several other groups, and was administered in Spanish as well as English, where appropriate. Analyses from that research are forthcoming, and will be available at www.opportunityagenda.org.
7 New America Media, http://newamericamedia.org/about (accessed April 19, 2014). According to Nielsen, for example, Univision averaged 1.8 million viewers ages 18 to 49 nightly, beating out FOX, NBC, CBS and ABC. Pew Research Center, “What Univision’s Milestone Says about U.S. Demographics,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/07/29/what-univisions-milestone- says-about-u-s-demographics/ (accessed April 19, 2014).
8 In prior research, The Opportunity Agenda has studied media depictions of African-American men and boys, as well as cultural strategies to uphold the rights and integration of immigrants in U.S. society. See, respectively, The Opportunity Agenda, Literature Review: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys, 2012, http://opportunityagenda.org/ literature_review_media_representations_and_impact_lives_black_men_and_boys; The Opportunity Agenda, Immigration: Arts, Culture and Media—A Creative Change Report, 2010, http://opportunityagenda.org/files/field_file/2010.09.02%20Immigration- Arts,Culture&Media2010.pdf.