Art that Tells a New Story About Economic Opportunity

We need a new story about the U.S. economy; a story that recognizes the economic insecurity faced by thousands of American families while also offering aspirational goals for a more equitable and just future. An important part of telling this story is envisioning the foundational values for true economic opportunity. We believe that art has the unique power to do this

 

With this in mind, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned artist Nina Montenegro to create high-resolution, downloadable art that illustrate values that would allow for a prospering economy. The portfolio draws inspiration from the work of advocacy groups that are championing solutions to our unjust economy. Our hope is that these aspirational images will help social justice leaders in their economic opportunity work. These images are free, however the artist maintains the copyright and should be credited as such.  They are for non-commercial use only and may not be re-used or re-interpreted by for-profit ventures under any circumstances.

More about the artist: Nina Montenegro is a Chilean-American visual artist, illustrator, and designer.  Montenegro’s practice crosses disciplines to advocate for an ecologically-viable and socially-just future.  Her work has been featured in Orion, Art in America, The Guardian, Grist, and printed and distributed by publications worldwide.  She is co-founder and co-creative director of the design studio The Far Woods, located on an organic farm outside of Portland, Oregon.

If you’d like more information on our economic opportunity work, sign up for “The Amp,” our weekly action alert that helps prepare you for the week ahead. The Amp keeps you ahead of the curve by spotlighting what’s coming — not only in the news, but from your partners in racial and economic justice. We help you identify and respond to what’s important by providing you with the messaging, research, and pop culture hooks you need. Check out past editions here.

Let us know how you plan to use these images. Please send us photos or links when you use them. And send any additional feedback or ideas you might have.

Downloadable Images (PDFs): 

Illustration of the Capitol with text: We need a government that works for all of us

Illustration of the Capitol with text: We need a government that works for all of us

Quick Tips for Talking About Poverty and Taxes

We all want to live in a country where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. But recent tax cut proposals from leaders in Washington, D.C. would dramatically undermine the ability of all Americans to ensure their own economic security. Based on research by Topos Partnership, The Opportunity Agenda compiled the following quick tips for discussing these tax cuts and changes to our nation’s tax system.

1. Lead with Values. Emphasize the values of community and a strong and thriving society. Describe the foundations of a strong and prosperous society that taxes make possible. We all rely on roads, schools, first responders and so many other foundational aspects of our society that we jointly pay for through taxes.

Sample Language:

We all know the ingredients of a great community: Schools with good teachers, well-maintained streets, emergency response to keep us safe, access to high quality healthcare— these basics help communities thrive. Are we doing all we can to make sure our communities have them?[1]

2. Promote effective solutions and successes. After establishing values, follow with a systemic story about how these various public structures, along with other critical programs, can create a path from poverty to economic participation for many in our country.

Sample Language:

Reclaiming the promise of opportunity means demanding an economy that works for everyone, not just corporations/businesses. Robust employment opportunities are important, but even at a 4.9% unemployment rate, 43 million of us are still living in poverty. We need to work together to shore up programs like social security, welfare, and job training initiatives so that we all have a chance to live in economic stability.

3. Balance out a story of spending with a story about people paying their fair share. We need to close loopholes that give huge breaks to the wealthy so that everyone, including the workers who contribute to the profits of the very wealthy, gets the support they need to provide for their families. Our government’s role should be to make sure everyone has access to education, jobs, and healthcare, not to let the very wealthy out of paying their fair share at the expense of these things.

Sample Language:

You can’t get something for nothing. We all want and deserve thriving communities with great schools, parks, modern roads and bridges; and we chip in to pay for that. That’s what taxes are for. But our tax code needs serious reform; it is riddled with out-of-control tax breaks that are syphoning off the resources that would be better used in our communities. Should we be spending on things that benefit all of us and make our communities thrive, or on tax breaks that mostly benefit a few?[2]

4. Show how spending can lead to more equal access to economic opportunity. Most audiences don’t understand the root causes of poverty in any detail, particularly when it comes to the forces behind the disparate impact of poverty based on race, ethnicity, and gender. It’s therefore difficult for people to see how something like taxes can play a role in creating and sustaining a more equitable society. We have to tell a story that connects the dots from how particular government agencies, policies, and programs play a role in paving a path from poverty to economic participation, and also knocking down the barriers of racial, ethnic and gender discrimination that hold many back.

Sample Language:

We all want to live in a country where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. But we know that this isn’t true yet, and that a lot of opportunities depend on what someone looks like or where they came from. When you add together current circumstances caused by old prejudices—and the everyday bias and discrimination that we all know exists–some groups face a lot more barriers than others. One way we’ve addressed this is by passing laws so that we can protect people from housing and employment discrimination, or to make sure that kids can get a good education. We can all agree that these laws are central to equal opportunity and that we have to enforce them. Our taxes pay for that enforcement, and eliminating funds for the important agencies that do that work just makes it harder for us all to realize real equality and equal opportunity.

5. Build a message with VPSA. We recommend including four elements in your tax messages: Value, Problem, Solution, and Action.

Sample VPSA:

Value

Our nation aspires to be a place where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity.

Problem

However, our economy is out of balance, with significant barriers impeding the ability of many people to care for their families. Moreover, current political circumstances are increasing threats to the political underpinnings of many of the elements that provide for a basic standard of living for millions of people. The release of the administration’s tax plan illustrates this problem: the very wealthy will pay less and less at the expense of policies designed to provide pathways out of poverty.

Solution

Instead of this step backwards, we need to protect and improve programs like social security, welfare, and Medicaid, which can provide the tools people need to make ends meet and move out of poverty.

Action

Contact your representatives and urge them to support tax policies that protect opportunity.

[1] Topos Partnership, Taxlandia. March 2016.

[2] ibid

10 Facts About Public Attitudes Toward Economic Opportunity

Freedom, opportunity, respect, and dignity – just some of the core values that many Americans say define them as individuals and a country. It was these same values that bubbled to the surface in a series of focus groups we held at the beginning of the year in three regions of the country. In collaboration with UnidosUS[1] and Lake Research Partners, we set out to examine how Americans were thinking and feeling directly following the November 2016 election. We found many people united in their concern about the divisive tone of politics and the treatment of people of color, and a shared willingness to act in support of positive change.

This memo draws on the results of this collaborative research project and provides an overview of key findings from a national online dial survey administered to a total of 1,000 registered voters nationwide in March 2017, with oversamples of 100 African Americans, 100 Latinos, and 100 millennials. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent for the overall sample and larger for subgroups.

In this memo, we focus primarily on segments of the population defined as the base, opposition, and persuadables[2]. Our base, opposition, and persuadables were created using a statistical cluster analysis that identified groups of like-minded voters based on the patterns of their responses to series of questions about their attitudes toward economic opportunity, diversity, racial inequality, and a variety of related topics. As of March 2017, roughly 33 percent of registered voters made up our base, 17 percent the opposition, and the remaining 50 percent represented persuadable audiences. While these segments correlate to some degree with political party affiliation, they are not entirely predictive of one another. For example, strong Republicans were more likely to fit the profile of persuadable than those who merely lean Republican. More information about the demographics of the base, opposition, and persuadables can be found in the Appendix.

Due to the sample size, we were unable to draw conclusions about three subgroups: Native Americans, those lacking a high school diploma, and those with non-college, post-secondary education. The sample size of each group was too small to make any reliable inferences.

Key findings from our latest analysis include:

1.  Americans are united in their concern about the level of respect people in our country have for those from different cultures. Survey participants were asked how concerned they were about the level of respect people have for those from different cultural backgrounds on a scale of 0 (not concerned) to 10 (very concerned). A score of 5 was neutral. The majority of Americans across racial groups, political party affiliation, age groups, and education levels identified as concerned (i.e. reported a concern level of 6 or higher).

Across racial groups, Black Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders were most concerned, with 88 percent of Black Americans and 87 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders expressing levels of concern 6 or higher. This compares to 83 percent of Latinos, and 79 percent of White Americans. Across political party affiliation, an overwhelming majority of “strong” Democrats[3] (90 percent) expressed high levels of concern about the current level of respect given to people from different cultures, compared to 71 percent of “not strong” Republicans. Across age groups, those under 30 were more likely to express concern than those aged 50-64, with 85 percent of voters under 30 expressing concern, compared to 79 percent of voters aged between 50-64.

2.  Persuadables and the base report similar levels of concern over the tone of politics and political conversation. Roughly 87 percent of persuadables and 88 percent of the base reported a level of concern of 6 or higher on a scale of 0 to 10, where 5 was neutral. In contrast, only 67 percent of the opposition reported a similar level of concern.

3.  Persuadables express serious concern with their ability to trust the media. When asked how concerned they were about their ability to trust the media, roughly 79 percent of persuadables reported a concern level of 6 or higher on a scale of 0 to 10, where 5 was neutral. In contrast, only 60 percent of the base and 70 percent of the opposition reported a similar level of concern.

When asked specifically about their level of trust in 12 different news sources, persuadables expressed significantly higher levels of trust in friends and family than traditional news media sources. However, persuadables express more trust in sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN than right-leaning sources such as Fox News and Breitbart.

4.  Persuadables have similar social media habits to the base, and both groups make more use of social media than the opposition. As Figure 2 indicates, the social media habits of persuadables track more closely to the base than the opposition. The most common social media platforms among the base and persuadables are YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. In addition, persuadables and the base report more social media usage overall than the opposition. Roughly 18 percent of the opposition abstain from social media compared to only 11 percent of the base and 9 percent of persuadables.

5.  In contrast to persuadables and the base, the opposition reports more concern over “opportunity”, less over “inequality”. When asked their views about how serious a variety of topics currently are, a greater proportion of the opposition reports concern over the lack of opportunity (72 percent) than inequality (65 percent). Persuadables and the base not only have higher levels of concern overall, they also show similar levels of concern for both the lack of opportunity and inequality. Ninety-two percent of persuadables and 95 percent of the base reported concern over the lack of opportunity; 95 percent of persuadables and 98 percent of the base reported concern over inequality.

6.  Persuadables have conflicting attitudes towards wealth, inequality, and the role of government. Ninety-one percent of persuadables believe that government has an important role to ensure opportunity for all. Further, 58 percent believe that wealthy Americans achieved their success because they had more opportunities rather than because they worked harder. At the same time, 74 percent believe that government assistance created a culture of dependency, and 68 percent believe that turning to government to solve problems will do more harm than good.

7.  Persuadables are more likely to support social safety nets when a populist framework focused on the role of wealthy individuals and corporations is adopted. We randomly assigned half of survey participants to respond to the following question:

Which of two statements more closely reflects your views: A) there is “too much focus on helping people who take advantage of government assistance,” or B) the wealthiest corporations and individuals should “pay their fair share”. When framed as an issue of the wealthiest not contributing their fair share, 52 percent of persuadable respondents favored option B and agree that the wealthy should contribute more, compared to 39 percent who favored statement A.

The other half of survey participants were given a similar choice, but option B was modified: A) there is “too much focus on helping people who take advantage of government assistance,” or B) “everyone benefits when we help the people who need it most.” When framed this way, persuadables are more divided on their views, with 49 percent favoring statement A, and 41 percent favoring statement B.

8.  Persuadables have conflicting views about people of color, personal responsibility, and discrimination in America. The overwhelming majority of persuadables believe that discrimination against Black Americans (88 percent), Latinos (73 percent), and Muslims (80 percent) is a problem. At the same time, 74 percent believe that “Too often minorities use racism as an excuse for their own failures” and 62 percent believe that “Blacks and other minorities who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition”. In contrast, only 27 percent of the base believes “minorities use racism as an excuse”, and only 41 percent believes “minorities are mostly responsible for their own condition.”

9.  Persuadables believe strongly in the power of diversity to strengthen, unite, and  better our country. Ninety-five percent of persuadables agreed that embracing diversity makes us strong as a country, and 93 percent agreed that it makes us united. Eighty-seven percent agreed that people from different cultural backgrounds make positive contributions to American society. This trend carries across political parties, racial groups, and age groups, with each subgroup responding very positively to diversity and its impact on the country.

10.  Persuadables nearly unanimously believe we should counteract bigotry but are skeptical racial attitudes will actually change. Ninety-five percent of persuadables agree that “Everyone should try to do what they can to interrupt bigotry and prejudice,” and that “Everyone should try to do what they can to heal the wounds of bigotry and prejudice.” At the same time, 73 percent agreed that there is nothing “we” can do to change racial attitudes in America, and 74 percent agreed there is nothing “I” ( they personally) can do to change racial attitudes in America.

The overwhelming majority of Americans are excited to mobilize and bring about change. Eighty-five percent of the base is excited to “join together with other people to take action and bring about change.” Similar levels of motivation were reported across political parties, racial groups, education levels, and age groups. However, there was significant variation among education levels and age groups. More education and higher age are both associated with lower levels of excitement.

Audience Considerations

These findings have several implications for galvanizing support and collective action for social justice movements:

  • Act now and give clear instructions. The survey strongly suggests that people are eager and ready to mobilize—the question is do they know how? On prejudice, for example, the majority agrees we should do everything we can to counteract it, but some voters remains skeptical that attitudes will change. Giving people concrete actions, or policies to support and explaining the positive impact those actions will have makes it more likely they will engage.
  • Keep messaging positive. The majority of survey participants are concerned about the tone of politics and political conversation. Further, they do not trust the media. Leading with the problem is likely to dissuade potential persuadable audiences, who our research shows are currently eager to hear of ways they can positively engage. At a time when trust is low and people are concerned about the spirit of politics, focusing our messaging on the affirmative story and core values we want to uplift is critical to reaching persuadable audiences.
  • Empower persuasion among family and friends. At a time when media trust is low, people are turning to family and friends as a source of news and political analysis. Therefore, empowering trusted constituents to move family and friends is an effective way to grow the base.
  • Prioritize social media. Persuadables and the base have similar social media habits and use social media at greater rates than the opposition. Thus, communicating through platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram is a cost-effective way to reach both the base and persuadable audiences already making heavy use of these platforms.
  • Adopt a populist framework. Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign is a clear indication that the populist framework is currently resonating with a large segment of registered voters. However, our findings also indicate that it is possible to move people toward progressive policy solutions by making use of a populist framework. The survey suggests that people are more amenable to government support of marginalized populations once reminded that government also subsidizes wealthy corporations and individuals. Further, the idea that the wealthy should “pay their fair share” was popular among both base and persuadable audiences, and can be used to encourage support for numerous social justice programs.
  • Emphasize strength in diversity. Although survey participants have conflicting attitudes towards people of color, they have consistently positive attitudes toward diversity. The overwhelming majority of persuadables believes that diversity makes America strong and united. Further, they believe that people from diverse backgrounds make positive contributions to society. Advocates seeking to research persuadable audiences should link diversity to strength and problem solving, while also acknowledging that some people might be uncomfortable with change.

APPENDIX

Demographics: Base, Opposition, Persuadables

[1] Formerly the National Council of La Raza

[2] Persuadables are individuals who have attitudes that overlap with both the base and opposition. For a full breakdown of their demographic characteristics, see appendix.

[3] Those who strongly self-identified as Democrats.

Expanding Opportunity for Everyone

Two recent studies have alleged that Ban the Box policies hurt young men of color’s chances of getting a job. The studies assume that employers discriminate against these young men because hiring staff don’t have access to any conviction record and therefore assume that applicants have a record.

These studies’ misguided attacks on Ban the Box policies are troubling for several reasons: 1) they restate the longstanding reality, that discrimination against young men of color in America exists, but do not offer solutions to battle that discrimination, and 2) they suggest questioning or repealing a policy that has successfully and measurably opened the door for many qualified jobseekers emerging from prison or jail. In addition to these problems, critics of the studies have pointed out several methodological issues with the studies.

It’s important to counter the message these studies send—that we should rethink Ban the Box—with a united strategy that focuses on our values, the bigger issues at stake, and the solutions we should all rally behind.

Therefore, it’s recommended that those speaking on behalf of these policies organize messages around four main themes:

1. We can’t tolerate discrimination in any form.

Making employment available to as many people as possible is the cornerstone of a strong community and democracy, and these studies spotlight how discrimination poses an ongoing barrier to African American job applicants.

  • Emphasize what we all believe in: opportunity, equality, and that discrimination of any kind is a barrier to opportunity and to progress. Acknowledge the biases that we all carry around in our heads and must work to overcome, and make clear that those biases should never decide someone’s employment future. There are laws to protect us all, and we should enforce them.
  • Remind people of times that they may have faced discrimination for whatever reason, and that they would want to be protected. Almost everyone has felt on the outside at some point in time; building on that empathy can help firm people’s support for anti-discrimination measures.
  • Avoid assuming audiences understand how or believe that discrimination can be decreased or eliminated. Explain that it is illegal, and that anti-discrimination laws work when they are rigorously enforced. Use examples of when enforcement has made a difference.

Opportunity is a core American value that means that we all deserve a chance to reach our potential. Discrimination is a major barrier to opportunity, and we all have a responsibility to eliminate it.

There are all kinds of wrong stories, stereotypes, and biases out there about different groups of people that hurt their chances to move forward in the world. We have to make sure we have laws that protect people from discrimination and that expand opportunity for all of us.

Government has a responsibility to ensure equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination. Virtually all of us are from families where someone was treated poorly because they were a woman, a little older, or had a disability. We need strong laws that knock down arbitrary and subtle barriers to equal access that any of us might face.

2. We should stick with successful policies.

“Ban the Box” is a commonsense first step that has been successful in moving people into employment, in expanding opportunity, in ensuring a second chance for people with criminal records, and in challenging and defeating negative stereotypes. Access to employment is the backbone of a strong community. We should stick with policies that work.

  • policies that work: commonsense, land of second chances, deserving a fresh start, and removing barriers to success for people with records. Talk about people returning from prison or jail, people with records, young people, workers, job applicants, moms, dads, family members.  We are all more than one label.
  • terms like: Felons, Offenders, Inmates, Ex-Cons, Juveniles. Using defensive language like “Ban the box policies don’t encourage discrimination…” Focus on success.

We’re a country that believes in second chances when things go badly or when people make mistakes. Ban the box policies give people with records an opportunity to start fresh and apply for a job without harmful stereotypes hanging over their heads. Having a job and financial stability is an important part of starting over and rejoining a community – it’s in everyone’s best interest to remove any barriers to success so that people really are getting a second chance.

3. Let’s focus on the real problem.

These new studies, when examined closely, don’t show that ban-the-box policies are costing African American applicants job opportunities. Race based discrimination is the problem here; ban the box policies are thoughtful solutions that have helped reveal this serious problem.

  • that we have to live up to our values and discrimination is wrong across the board. We can’t tolerate it. These studies have real flaws that we need to examine before taking their advice.
  • arguing against the studies’ conclusions before setting up a values proposition. The point is not to argue with the studies’ authors on their own terms, but instead to bring the argument back to challenging discrimination of any kind.

We want to be a country in which people have equal access to opportunity and are not blocked by discrimination. But these studies don’t pose any solutions for addressing discrimination. That alone is troubling, but they also have some real methodological issues that we need to talk about.

No one’s economic future should be threatened by stereotypes or discrimination in a hiring situation. We have laws that protect us all against that sort of thing and it’s our responsibility as a country to ensure that we build on and strengthen them, and that employers fully understand and follow them.

4. We all have a stake in removing barriers to opportunity.

We need to both expand opportunity for people with records and to remove barriers triggered by all kinds of discrimination in the hiring process. Emphasize that dismantling successful policy remedies can never be the answer.

  • that it’s about all of us, our identity as a community/state/country. We’re in it together and we all want to move forward. We all have a responsibility to tackle discriminatory practices.
  • Emphasize the question, should our children and loved ones continue to be punished for things we have already been held accountable?
  • getting forced into an “either/or” argument. We have to emphasize tackling discrimination of all kinds.

These studies say they are concerned about discrimination, but offer no real solutions to ending discrimination. We all have a stake in making sure everyone has an equal shot at success, including people with records who face some of the biggest barriers to moving forward. We need to stick with the proven policies that have protected these folks from discrimination, while also continuously working to end other forms of discrimination.

We have been successful in passing laws that protect us all from discriminatory practices. It’s our responsibility as a country to ensure that we build on and strengthen them, and that employers fully understand and follow them. 

Building a Message with VPSA: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

One useful approach to tying these themes together is to structure communications around a Value, Problem, Solution, and Action structure, meaning that each message contains these four key components:  Values (why the audience should care, and how they will connect the issue to themselves), Problem (framed as a threat to the shared values we have just invoked), Solution (to provide hope and purpose), and Action (a concrete ask of the audience, to ensure engagement and movement).

Values: Opportunity, Equality, Second Chances

Starting with values that matter to most Americans can help audiences to “hear” our messages more effectively than do dry facts or emotional rhetoric. Encouraging people to think about shared values encourages aspirational, hopeful thinking – a better place to start when entering tough conversations than fear or anxiety.

Problem: Discrimination in Any Form

Frame discrimination as the central problem here, and as a threat to our values. Talk about discrimination as a barrier to opportunity and a failure in moving toward a more equal society.

Solution: Positive Policies and Rigorous Enforcement

Be meticulously solution-oriented. Some people who understand that unequal opportunity and discrimination exist may also believe that nothing can be done about them, leading to “compassion fatigue” and inaction. Describe how ban the box policies help to decrease discrimination for people with records, while also pointing to other remedies fordiscrimination in other forms. Keep the tone aspirational – that we can decrease discrimination and remove barriers to opportunity for everyone.

Action
Give your audiences something that they can do in the short, medium, and/or long-term.

Sample VPSAs

On the studies’ findings that discrimination is happening

Value: Opportunity is a core American value that means that we all deserve a chance to reach our potential. Discrimination is a major barrier to opportunity, and we all have a responsibility to eliminate it.

Problem: As these studies show, discrimination against African American job applicants persists. This is a blow to our national values. No one’s economic future should be threatened by stereotypes or discrimination in a hiring situation.

Solution: We have been successful in passing laws that protect us all against that sort of thing. It’s our responsibility as a country to ensure that we build on and strengthen them, and that employers fully understand and follow them. 

Action: Push for the full and rigorous enforcement of equal opportunity laws that ban discrimination and uphold equal opportunity for everyone. Push to protect policies that decrease discrimination, as Ban the Box policies have done for people with records.

On the studies’ attacks on Ban the Box policies

Value: In moments like this, it’s important to take a step back and focus on our core beliefs as a country. We’ve long been a country that believes in opportunity for everyone, for equal treatment, and economic mobility. We also believe in second chances when things go badly or when people make mistakes. Ban the box policies uphold all of these values, giving people with records an opportunity to start fresh and apply for a job without harmful stereotypes hanging over their heads.

Problem: These studies ask us to reconsider these important and successful policies without addressing the core issue they identify: discrimination against African-American job applicants.

Solution: We have to address discrimination at all levels. And we have to do that without adding to the barriers people emerging from prison and jail face. Having a job and financial stability is an important part of starting over and rejoining a community – it’s in everyone’s best interest to remove any barriers to success so that people really are getting a second chance.

Action: Continue your support of this important, effective, and successful policy.

**Written in collaboration with the National Employment Law Project**

Talking About Economic Justice

Background:

Our nation aspires to be a place where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. However, our economy is out of balance, with significant barriers impeding the ability of many people to care for their families. At the same time, recent political developments threaten the basic standard of living for many people.

Public opinion research shows that there is shared concern about economic inequality and poverty, despite differences in how to resolve those issues. To build support for our solutions, we need to proceed strategically in our messaging. At the same time, public opinion research also shows that many Americans hold seemingly contradictory ideas about how to address poverty as well as negative stereotypes about welfare dependency, government ineptitude, and irresponsible individual choices, as well as implicit and explicit racial, ethnic, and gender biases.

This memo offers communications guidance for talking about anti-poverty initiatives, and economic equality generally, with a range of audiences. It draws on available opinion research, practical experience, and communications principles.

Talking About Poverty:

Tell Affirmative Stories: There are a lot of frustrating and incorrect stories about people experiencing poverty and the reasons for it. However, it’s important to avoid restating false arguments. Repeating misinformation, even to refute it, can cause audiences to remember it better, but not necessarily remember that it was wrong. This is particularly true when information is stated in the affirmative, as happens with the “Myth/Fact” format of disputing untruths, for example: “Myth: The flu vaccine can sometimes cause the flu. Fact: The flu vaccine does not cause the flu.” The better approach is to proactively put forward what is true: “The flu vaccine prevents the flu.” Or, “This policy change assumes that poor people are lazy. They’re not.” A better approach: “We all want economic security so that we can provide for our families, but this policy would create huge new barriers in our communities.”

Focus on Shared Values and Messaging to Uplift Each Other’s Voices and Concerns: Emphasize the value of Equal Opportunity, i.e. what you look like, your accent, or your zip code should not predetermine your chances in life. 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/labor policies. Other key values: Community (we are all in it together and share responsibility for the common good); Family/Security (we should all have access to the resources necessary to provide for ourselves and our families); Pragmatism/Prevention (focusing on what works from a commonsense perspective and addressing root causes before they lead to even bigger problems. Cost saving and efficiency arguments frequently tap this value).

Focus on Real-World Economic Challenges: Move beyond official government definitions and, instead, touch on the real-world challenges facing many Americans, while also highlighting the solutions. For instance, talk about the challenges of holding down two jobs and still having to make choices between groceries and school supplies.

Document and Explain Unequal Obstacles—not only unequal outcomes or disparities. Although there is greater understanding than in the past, many Americans (including many low-income Americans) are not aware of the unequal obstacles facing people trying to move out of poverty. Avoid talking about gaps and instead focus on barriers and obstacles that we have the power to remove through sensible policies.

Highlight Systemic Solutions For Systemic Problems: We need to move audiences beyond an individual understanding of poverty, i.e. the extreme “personal responsibility” narrative that blames poverty almost exclusively on the work ethic and decision making of individuals. Fortunately, most Americans agree that “the primary cause of America’s problems is an economic system that results in continuing inequality and poverty.” We need to build on this and describe how our solutions can reduce or eliminate poverty. We also need to describe those solutions in human terms (i.e. “people living in poverty”) not with acronyms or jargon (i.e. “TANF” or “SNAP”).

Show the Connections: Americans intuitively understand that when our economy is out of balance and favors some more than others, it holds us back as a country and creates an environment in which serious social problems develop and worsen. Showing and telling how economic actors and policies have thrown our economy out of balance and how that affects all of us—storytelling, data and real world examples—is crucial.

Acknowledge and Confront Deep-Seated Stereotypes: Conversations about poverty tend to be racialized and gendered—meaning that audiences bring subconscious stereotypes to terms like “welfare,” “food stamps,” “homelessness,” and even “poverty.” They tend to over-associate poverty with people of color (especially women of color) and the negative stereotypes surrounding them. Remind audiences that achieving racial and gender equity upholds our values and benefits our entire society. Over-document the barriers to equal opportunity—especially racial bias. 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, which helps to persuade skeptical audiences to lower their defenses and have a reasoned discussion rooted in reality rather than rhetoric. Select stories that demonstrate systemic causes and solutions over stories that largely focus on individual choices.

Build on Policies with High Levels of Support: A number of anti-poverty strategies receive high levels of support from the public, i.e. raising the federal minimum wage and increasing taxes on those earning over $1 million annually.

Possible Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  Times are tough for everyone. Why should we give a handout to people who haven’t helped themselves?

A:  You and I know our society is at its best when everyone has the opportunity to fulfill their potential and pursue their dreams. America succeeds when every worker can be paid enough to care for his or her family, when every child can move forward with a good education, and when every American can retire in dignity. America works best when we look out for each other and work together as one nation, indivisible. (Messaging via Center for Community Change).

Q:  Why are “poor people” so dependent on government assistance?

A:  Public structures like Social Security, Medicaid, and Head Start have empowered millions of Americans to get back on track after hardships, retire in dignity, and move from poverty to prosperity. That’s especially important now, with our economy so far out of whack for everyday people. When corporations don’t have to pay people a decent wage, when millions of young people don’t have access to a good education, and when retirement savings can’t keep up with rising costs and stagnant wages, we need public structures that keep the doors to opportunity open for everyone in our country.

Q:  Why are so many “poor people” African-American or Latinx?

A:  It’s important to have an accurate picture of poverty in the United States. Many different kinds of people in this country are living on the brink. Nearly twice as many white people live in poverty as African-American people, and almost 1.5 times the number of white people are living in poverty as Latinx people. All of these communities are facing barriers to economic stability, and it’s in our interest and power to remove these barriers so that we all have an opportunity to care for our families and have a decent life.

Q:  Aren’t there other ways to reduce poverty, like through job creation?

A:  Reclaiming the promise of opportunity means demanding an economy that works for everyone, not just large corporations. Robust employment opportunity is important, but even at a 4.9% unemployment rate, 43 million of us are still living in poverty. We need to work together to shore up programs like Social Security, food assistance, and job training initiatives so that we all have the opportunity to live economically stable lives.


For additional communications advice or information on anti-poverty work, we recommend:

Quick Tips for Talking Immigration Issues

The immigration experience, one of moving from a familiar home to an uncertain future, is based on hope and opportunity. While recent attacks on immigrants and the concept are dispiriting, to say the least, they can’t defeat that hope and opportunity. Those values have pushed us forward as a nation built, in part, on the experience of newcomers who have made their way here to share their unique perspectives, skills, and cultures. As a result, we are a country that values the contributions and participation of people from diverse backgrounds. We have to continue to connect to those core values, and protect them against those seeking to exclude and divide. Here are five quick tips for talking about immigration in the face of these attacks so that we can tell a story that is forward-looking, full of hope, and that celebrates opportunity for all.

  1. Lead with values. “This is about the kind of country we want to be, how we treat people, what it really means to be American.” We need to push these conversations beyond specific executive orders or legislation and ensure that they’re centered on our core beliefs and our value system. Persuadable audiences can hear arguments for policy reform much more clearly when we link it to these all-important values.
  2. Talk common sense. Recent executive orders and proposed legislation reflect backward thinking and won’t serve us into the future. Instead, we need a commonsense approach that takes into account our values, our economic needs, and our future. Point out that vitriol, political division, and a desire to exclude people shouldn’t have any place in our approach to immigration policy.
  3. It’s about all of us. Standing up for what’s right is about more than immigrants’ rights, or workers, or Latinos. Rejecting bad policies is the right thing to do for everyone.
  4. Tell an affirmative story. There are a lot of misguided communications, skewed arguments and outright lies in current discourse. But too much focus on correcting wrong information can just reinforce it in audiences’ minds. So resist the temptation to bust all the myths out there, and just tell people what is true.
  5. Emphasize contribution and participation. We have to reject policies that would make contribution and participation very difficult for some people. We all thrive when we all participate, gearing up our economic engine and moving us all forward together.

Messaging for Current Conversations

Recent executive orders pose grave threats to our communities and our values. As we organize to counter, undo, and prevent further damage, strategic messaging is more important than ever. We hope the following quick tips, based on communications research, experience, and input from partners around the country, helps with this task as we all move forward.

Building a Message – Value, Problem, Solution, Action

Values

Communications research shows that audiences are more receptive to new arguments when they are framed by shared values. For recent Executive Orders, there are three sets of recurring values that we want to keep at the center of the conversation:

1) Our Core National Values
Remind people of the kind of country we want to be, drawing on our best ideals. For some audiences, describing times in our history when we have done the right thing is inspiring. Values: Opportunity, freedom, justice, our founding legal documents.

We see tonight what I believe is a clear violation of the Constitution, and so clearly tonight we have to commit ourselves to the longer fight. Clearly tonight, we have to commit ourselves to the cause of our country. Clearly tonight, we have to be determined to show this world what America is all about.

– Senator Cory Booker

Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un- American it pains us all…It is time to link arms together to protect American values of freedom and opportunity.

– Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

A nation founded with the promise of religious freedom. This nation wants to ban Muslim immigrants? #NoBanNoWall

– Franchesca Ramsey, Youtuber

2) Our Moral Responsibility
Remind audiences of our responsibilities to our fellow humans and how we must rise above fear and xenophobia to find our “better angels” as Abraham Lincoln once said. We share responsibility for one another and for protecting and uplifting human rights. Values: Empathy, compassion community.

America is better when we lead with freedom, not fear. We cannot allow fear to dictate our decisions. We must act with requisite caution, but also with compassion and moral clarity.

– National Immigration Forum

We need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home and country.

– Bishop Joe S Vásquez, US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Even though Dory gets into America, she ends up separated from her family, but the other animals help Dory. Animals that don’t even need her. Animals that don’t have anything in common with her. They help her, even though they’re completely different colors. Because that’s what you do when you see someone in need – you help them.

– Ellen DeGeneres, using the plot from her film Finding Dory to comment on the border wall.

3) Our “Can-do” Spirit
Audiences are hungry for solutions in times like these. We have to remember to highlight what we want moving forward – and how we can get there – in addition to pointing out what we’re against. Sympathetic audiences need to be primed to feel proud of our country’s capacity to accommodate all kinds of people, and our history of providing opportunity for those seeking it. Those in our base need to hear forward-leaning messages about working together to counter, demolish, and replace bad policies. Values: Pragmatism, common sense, innovation, determination to do the right thing, our shared responsibility to fix flawed policies, solidarity

It doesn’t make sense to spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money on something that is really not necessary. This is a 15th century solution to a nonexistent problem. We need a 21st century, common-sense border policy that upholds the dignity of our border residents.

– Vicki Gaubeca, Director, ACLU New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, New Mexico.

I think this is a problem that will need diplomatic solutions, political solutions, military solutions, educational, social, and other solutions. So, this is a problem that is multi- faceted and therefore requires a multi-faceted solution. Muslims are an integral part of that solution.

– Dr. Khalid Qazi, Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.

There is something more important and powerful than all three branches of government. It is you – the people.

 – New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio in support of protesters.

Problem

Frame problems as threats to our shared values. This is the place to pull out stories and statistics that are likely to resonate with the target audience. But choose facts carefully. We all have a lot of evidence to support our claims. However, facts do not tend to change minds if the facts are not couched in values.

We vehemently oppose any proposal or statements calling for a ban on refugees, as well as discrimination based on religion or nationality. As a nation founded in part by refugees and immigrants, these kind of discriminatory policies dishonor our history, beliefs and values.

– Welcoming America

[The Muslim order is] a stunning violation of our deepest American values, the values of a nation of immigrants: fairness, equality, openness, generosity, courage… As an immigrant and the child of refugees, I join them, with deep feeling, in believing that the policies announced Friday tear at the very fabric of our society.

– Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif.

Solution

Pivot quickly to solutions. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation. They are the hero of the story and rescue the values at stake. In the case of these Executive Orders, our existing laws and their enforcement, our resiliency, and our values will all point us in the right direction when it comes to solutions.

Restricting a religion… is as short-sighted as it is immoral. More intelligent would be to increase resources dedicated to regional refugee process centers so security checks occur in timely fashion.

– National Immigration Forum

The United States is a nation governed by the rule of law and not the iron will of one man. President Trump now has learned that we are a democratic republic where the powers of government are not dictatorial. They are limited. The courts are the bulwark of our democracy that protects individual rights and guards against the overreaching of an administration that confuses its will for the American public’s.

– American Civil Liberties Union

Action

Assign an action. What can this specific target audience do? Try to give them something concrete that they can picture themselves doing: making a phone call, sending an email. Steer clear of vague “learn more” messages, when possible. For people who have only recently become active due to the events of the past few months, it is particularly important to be explicit about action. Include specific steps and assurances that they can help make a difference by following through.

Additional Tips

Balance Individual Stories with System-Wide Solutions

Storytelling features, at its core, heroes and heroines who bring issues such as immigration to life, so stories about individual triumph and tragedy are an obvious component. However, without sufficient context, audiences can limit a story’s implication to the individual level, attributing successes and failures to personal responsibilities and actions that have little to do with the system-level change we are seeking in our immigration policies.

Tell Affirmative Stories

We’re all faced with misleading, inaccurate, and untruthful statements about our issues. And we certainly can’t allow misinformation to go unchallenged. But the best way to counter false information is to tell our affirmative story in ways that overcome the other side’s falsehoods. By contrast, we should avoid myth busting, or restating the false argument and then explaining why it’s wrong.

In fact, repeating misinformation, even to refute it, can cause audiences to remember it better, but not necessarily remember that it was wrong. This is particularly true when information is stated in the affirmative, as happens with the “Myth/Fact” format of disputing untruths, for example: “Myth: The flu vaccine can sometimes cause the flu. Fact: The flu vaccine does not cause the flu.” The better approach is to proactively put forward what is true. “The flu vaccine prevents the flu.” Or “This order assumes that refugees don’t already go through a comprehensive vetting system, but they do.” A better approach: “Refugees undergo months of vetting and interviews before they are considered for entry into the U.S. And perhaps as a result, rates of unlawful behavior among these groups is lower than among people who were born here. They are on average one of the most law-abiding groups of people you could hope for in your community.”

A Window Of Opportunity II

HOW TO NAVIGATE THIS REPORT

METHODOLOGY

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.

LIMITATIONS

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.

TERMINOLOGY

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.

SUMMARY

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.

close search

Hot Topics: