Every couple of generations, the stars align to create the potential for monumental, transformative social change. It turns out we’re in just such a moment right now when it comes to tackling poverty in the United States.
I don’t blame you for being skeptical. Economic inequality is growing, big corporations are consolidating their political power, and our federal government is mired in partisan gridlock. So why am I still smiling?
I’ve seen the data. My organization, The Opportunity Agenda, just completed a groundbreaking study of American poverty in the public discourse that reveals a historic opening for change. Here’s some of what we found:
• Americans now rank addressing poverty as a high priority on the national agenda. Sixty-five percent agree, for instance, that reducing inequality and poverty should be a top or high government priority.
• A record number of Americans understand that poverty is more a factor of unequal opportunity than of lack of effort. Earlier this year, 50 percent attributed poverty to circumstances beyond poor people’s control—the highest percentage since the question was first asked in 1965—and only 35 percent attributed poverty to “lack of effort.”
• A significant majority (60 percent) believes that our country would be better off if the gap between rich and poor were reduced, with 53 percent of white Evangelical Christians agreeing with this conclusion.
• There is substantial public support for several prominent policies designed to address poverty. Research by the Half in Ten Campaign found that over 80 percent of Americans support helping low-wage workers afford quality child care; expanding nutrition assistance to provide families with healthy food; making universal pre-kindergarten available for all children; and expanding publicly funded scholarships to help more families afford college.
• The U.S. demographic groups that are most supportive or open to addressing poverty—Millennials, people of color, and unmarried women—are among the fastest growing segments of the electorate.
So with all of this going for us, how could we screw it up? Easy. These attitudes demonstrate only the potential for transformative change, not its inevitability. They coexist with longstanding negative stereotypes about welfare dependency, government ineptitude, and irresponsible individual choices, as well as implicit and explicit racial, ethnic, and gender biases. Like any crossroads moment, there are plenty of ways we could squander our opportunity.
The first would be relying on politicians, of any party, to galvanize political will and propose transformative anti-poverty policy. The American public is way, way ahead of our political leadership on this issue. Converting that readiness into action will have to come from activism and organizing and effective communications—but more on that in a moment.
We could also screw it up by assuming that demographics are destiny. There’s no reason to believe that the views of Millennials or other groups today will inexorably shadow them throughout their lives — think of how white, working class Kennedy voters of the ‘60s became Reagan Democrats in the ‘80s.
We could also just wait too long to act. The current opening springs from a unique convergence of factors including an epic recession with prolonged unemployment, a sharp rise in economic inequality, low crime rates, globalization, and an Occupy Wall Street movement that, while short-lived, has influenced the national discourse more than most people realize. As the economy improves for some sectors of the public, the reality that we’re all in it together (at least 99 percent of us) will recede from many people’s minds — hence the “Window of Opportunity” in our report’s title.
Finally, and most important, those of us who seek to end poverty in our country could tell the wrong story. We could tell a story mired in rhetoric or jargon (EITC, CDBG, or ACA, anyone?), or one that’s about “us” helping “them,” or one that inadvertently triggers harmful stereotypes. Or one that just fails to inspire.
These aren’t idle concerns; they’re what many of us who oppose poverty are doing right now, albeit with the best of intentions. But, as “A Window of Opportunity” makes clear, we have it in our power to tell a new, compelling story that persuades the skeptics and activates our allies. Check out our report to see what we recommend. And see The Opportunity Agenda’s Communications Toolkit, Vision, Values, and Voice, for ideas on getting the story out.
In future posts, I’ll be sharing further insights from our research, including our analyses of news media coverage and social media activism. And I’ll be highlighting leaders and groups who are making the new story real around the country. I invite you to use the comments section of this blog to share your own experiences and ideas. Let’s act, while the window’s still open.