A Window Of Opportunity II

// Published: 2016



The analysis in this report is based on publicly available survey data and public opinion studies by reputable research organizations, news outlets, government bodies, and social issue groups related to poverty. Analysis includes an exploration of perceptions about seriousness and causes of poverty, attitudes toward those living in poverty, beliefs about upward mobility, and support for anti-poverty policies. We reviewed data from more than 40 sources, including peer-reviewed articles. Data from the Opportunity Survey, a national representative survey of more than 2,000 respondents, was also analyzed for new insights. These studies meet The Opportunity Agenda’s standards and best practices for research.


Because this report reviews existing studies, our analysis is limited by the severe gaps in data regarding many demographic groups, including Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, biracial and multiracial Americans, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. This is an important limitation—data from Pew Research Center indicates that roughly 29.1 percent of Native Americans/Alaska Natives live below the federal poverty line,1 yet survey and polling research often fails to examine these communities. Existing research similarly overlooks the many differences within Asian American, Latino, and other groups in terms of national origin, immigrant status, and other characteristics. In an effort to bring a more intersectional lens to this research, we have included data examining public support for policies that directly affect the ability of underserved communities to climb out of poverty, including affordable health care, subsidized housing, and a rise to the minimum wage.


The use of secondary sources has limitations related to language and terminology use. We have noted instances in this report when the data or source quoted makes use of terms and phrases that are not in line with our organizational guidelines and objectives.

As America prepares for what promises to be a pivotal election and history-defining presidency, the mood of the nation is shifting. In the past two years, the rise of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and populist sentiments within a large segment of the electorate has pushed the issue of systemic inequality to the forefront of public discourse. These major social shifts – coupled with declining poverty rates and bipartisan recognition that poverty is a serious issue in need of redress- indicate that we are in a critical moment when it comes to tackling poverty, and more broadly, inequality in America.

The American public is primed to hear a new story and new solutions for poverty. In order to leverage this moment, it is necessary for anti-poverty advocates and social justice leaders to understand how Americans currently think and feel about the issue, how attitudes on poverty intersect with other social justice issues, and what specific policies are likely to galvanize widespread support.

This report examines existing polling and survey data in an effort to identify major attitudinal shifts, lasting challenges, and opportunities for advocates and leaders seeking to advance anti-poverty narratives and policies.


In 2014, fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” the Opportunity Agenda published A Window of Opportunity, a three-part examination of prevailing public opinion and media representation of poverty in America. The report set out to answer several key questions: What is the public perception about the causes of poverty? Do people still have faith in the American Dream? What do Americans feel is the responsibility of government in tackling poverty and income inequality? What role, if any, do stereotypes and other biases play in shaping attitudes towards people living in poverty? Are there major differences in opinion between demographic groups? How has opinion changed over time?

Our analysis found that two competing, often conflicting narratives—individualism and personal responsibility on the one hand, and equal opportunity and shared responsibility on the other— have governed the American public’s overall perception of poverty-related issues. Our research also identified key openings of support for anti-poverty policies.

Our examination of data since 2014 and additional, previously unexplored data points reveal that Americans’ simultaneous belief in equal opportunity and individualist ideals largely persist and continue to influence support for anti-poverty policies. For instance, as of January 2016, more than 7 in 10 (72 percent) of surveyed Americans said that reducing poverty is an “extremely/very important” issue for the next president of the United States, while just under 6 in 10 (57 percent) express the same belief about reducing the “gap between the rich and the poor.”2 Despite public concern about poverty and income inequality, our analysis of recent polling and survey data shows that this concern has not resulted in significantly higher levels of support for tax reform. In fact, recent research shows that public support for higher taxation of the rich and/or expansion of social safety nets has remained stable over the last three decades.3

While many trends in public opinion have stayed the same in the last two years, there have been some notable attitudinal shifts. While the majority of Americans (60 percent) still believe in the power of hard work and other individualistic ideals, there is growing discontent about the possibility of people born into poverty being able to achieve the American Dream—that is, the belief that hard work can overcome poverty and inequality. As of 2015, nearly 6 in 10 Americans (57 percent) believe that the American Dream no longer holds true, up from 48 percent in 2014.4

Americans’ skepticism about the viability of the American Dream is coupled with rising concern about the state of equal opportunity in the United States and the fairness of the economic system. The somewhat unexpected popularity of former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders pushed the discussion of income inequality into the forefront of political debates, and survey data from 2010 to 2015 suggests that Americans are more concerned about equal opportunity today than at any other time within the last five years. As of 2015, 65 percent of Americans believe that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life,” while fewer than three in ten (28 percent) believe that “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.”5 Concern about the lack of equal opportunity has increased considerably since 2014, when 55 percent said that one of the big problems in the U.S. was the lack of equal opportunities for all. Survey data also indicates that Americans are increasingly concerned about unfair economic systems and corporate greed, while there is rising public awareness about the structural barriers faced by black Americans— an important opening for advocates seeking to educate the public and increase support for policies aimed to alleviate systemic inequality. In addition, research conducted by Topos Partnership indicates that there is a strong correlation between public perception of quality of life and the willingness to pay more in taxes6.

Finally, while research is still lagging in terms of providing data that examines the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and public opinion of poverty and low-income people, available survey data indicates strong support for policies that directly concern populations disproportionately affected by poverty, particularly a rise in the federal minimum wage and government housing subsidies. More than 7 in 10 people (74 percent) surveyed expressed the belief that housing subsidies would be very or somewhat effective in helping people struggling in the current economic climate.7 Taken together, there is clearly reason to be optimistic about tackling poverty in America.

This report begins with a series of key findings and concludes with recommendations for narrative and message building, audience engagement, and future research.

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