Using the New Poverty Data to Build Support for Public Solutions

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poverty dataGreetings friends and partners,

Over the years we have worked with many of you to promote the critical role that government must play in alleviating and eliminating poverty. We know that during September we will see the release of new federal poverty data. This is an important communications and engagement moment for all of us to shape the media coverage and public conversation in ways that can build public will for change.

Based on research we have commissioned and our interpretation of the some great new work being done, here are a few words of advice for making the most out of the public attention that the release of the new data provides:

  • Wrap the numbers inside of a bigger story. The media hook might be the fact that there is new data, but the goal should be to get the media and the pundits to package those numbers inside of a larger story that speaks to widely shared values and points to public solutions. So, lead with something bigger than the actual number (“New data shows that too many Texans struggle to  make ends meet” rather than “17.9% of Texans are poor”).
  • Make it about the conditions that people living in poverty actually face (families struggling to make ends meet, living on the edge, whose bills are mounting, or who aren’t able to put food on the table, etc.) and less about characterizing them by their condition ( “the poor,” “low-income families,” the “disadvantaged”).
  • Connect it to all of us. Sympathy and empathy only get us so far, and it’s not far enough to generate widespread support for a public role, much less a public role that would mean more public funding. Try to include some language that helps everyone see why this matters to them (e.g “when lawmakers take action to bolster families, everyone in a community benefits…” or “we all want to live in a state where people are able to support themselves and their families but we are falling well short of that goal”).
  • Approach personal stories with caution. A wide body of research, unfortunately, suggests that people very quickly look to blame individuals for their economic circumstances. Personal stories often trigger this blame-searching so make sure to quickly pivot to how a person whose story you might be telling or commenting on is emblematic of a larger problem facing society. And, when possible, use messengers who represent systems that need to be equipped to respond rather than the individuals themselves who are facing tough economic times (the child care provider rather than only the parent who lost a subsidy or the job-training counselor along with the participant, etc.).
  • Offer practical solutions and next steps (even if only one or two of them) rather than broad, nondescript calls for better policies. People aren’t very good at abstract thinking and their default stance with respect to poverty is that it’s intractable or too overwhelming to address. Offering a few specific solutions helps people avoid filing this story away as yet another overwhelming public crisis we can’t solve.  So offer a solution or two that fits with a common sense understanding of how hard it is to make a living and pay the bills (raise the minimum wage, require employers to offer paid sick days, provide child care assistance to more families, increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc.).


If you want to dig deeper into how to talk about poverty, here are a few more resources to get you started. Our research with TOPOS on how to explain government’s role in the economy is certainly relevant to those of you who are looking to use the new data to call for an active public role in shaping an economy that works for all. Similarly, we post lots of items about talking about poverty on our blog, Publicly Speaking. Last but not least, there is also some great new research out on this topic. In particular, two new ambitious research efforts that we think are particularly thoughtful and draw their conclusions from sound methodology are:


  1. The Center for Community Change has harnessed the impressive brain power of both Anat Shenker-Osorio and Celinda Lake to produce a terrific new set of insights and recommendations – Redefining the Way We Talk About Poverty.  As a teaser, consider that their top-tested message is called “Families Come First.” Check it out!
  2. The Opportunity Agenda also recently published a series of three reports titled “Window of Opportunity: Media and Public Opinion on Poverty in America” that goes into great detail about public attitudes about poverty, how the media covers the issue, and how the issue plays out in social media. The report also includes a rich set of framing recommendations including advice on how to craft a shared narrative (emphasize the values of equal opportunity and community, highlight systemic causes, and so on) and the importance of helping Americans to understand the structural barriers to mobility. Good stuff!


If you see something great out there this month, or you produce or participate in something that exemplifies any of these recommendations, please share it with us so that we can celebrate with you and promote it as a model for others. Likewise, don’t hesitate to send over something you’d like us to take a look at it in advance; we’re always glad to provide feedback. Continuing to share what we know while simultaneously learning from those out there on the ground is what we’re all about at Public Works. Keep up the great work and keep in touch.

Your friends at Public Works,

Dianne, Patrick, Marcia, Elaine, Anika and Sarah

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