Economic inequality in the United States has become a hot topic in the public conversation, but public opinion polls show that it’s not an urgent issue for most people. Americans know economic inequality exists, but they drastically underestimate the wealth gap. Creating jobs and lowering the deficit outrank reducing income inequality as policy priorities.
The messages that anti-poverty advocates use to raise urgency about the issue often fall flat. Typical approaches focus on inequality statistics, portray people in poverty as victims, or feature complex systemic problems that seem almost unsolvable. These kinds of messages don’t motivate people to call for government action to address growing inequality.
The Ford Foundation sought to create a message that would build public support for government action to close the widening wealth gap, and asked our team to explore taxpayers’ attitudes and test messages about the government’s role in reducing inequality.
The messages we developed persuaded 7 out of 10 people to support government anti-poverty programs that can reduce income inequality. We believe the insights and ideas that emerged during our research and development process can inform other messaging related to economic issues in which government policies and programs play a role in people's financial security—for example, retirement, home ownership, and the minimum wage.
Lesson 1: Put people in the picture the right way.
We aimed to create a narrative about income inequality, featuring people who benefit from government anti-poverty programs as protagonists. The story was one that almost any American could relate to: hardworking people trying to achieve financial security.
Participants in our focus groups envisioned financially secure people as resourceful, smart, and hardworking. In stark contrast, they often thought of people in poverty as less motivated, intelligent, or hardworking.
To address this dynamic, we created stories about people struggling in poverty and analyzed reactions. One effective story portrayed a man taking initiative to become financially secure, with the help of government programs. “David” took advantage of financial literacy classes, a matched savings program to save money for his daughter’s education, and other tools offered by the government.
Seeing a person in poverty taking initiative to improve his life—as opposed to being a victim of circumstances—opened the door to greater support. As one focus group participant said, “He did something for himself and his children. I can see that for people really down and out, they could use a jump start for a certain period of time.”
Putting people in the picture and characterizing them with positive traits encourages respect and empathy. And it encourages taxpayers to support government programs that help them.
Lesson 2: Invoke shared, aspirational goals.
When it comes to fighting poverty, the audience for a persuasive message often comes from a very different station in life than people served by anti-poverty programs. One way to bridge this divide is to show that people in poverty have the same aspirations as other Americans.
Participants in our study expressed their goal of achieving financial security. They could relate to anyone actively working to achieve that goal.
Our qualitative research found that “financial security” was still a bit abstract to people. It became more real to them when they thought of it in terms of tangible milestones: Financial security means that you make enough money to buy a home, save for a child’s education, and put away money for retirement.
Those specific examples make the shared aspiration of financial security relatable; they also encourage people to support programs that help others achieve that goal.
Lesson 3: Make the problem sound solvable.
When we showed focus group participants economic data on the country’s growing wealth gap, people reacted with frustration and anger—then resignation. They had no idea how to deal with a problem of that scale, so they shrugged their shoulders and said nothing could be done.
To avoid de-motivating people, it’s essential to describe complex problems in ways that people will easily understand. They need to believe that the problem is solvable.
One message described the root problem of intergenerational poverty in a simple way, and more than 70 percent of people in our survey found that this was a convincing reason to support government anti-poverty programs:
A lot of kids don’t get an equal start in life, because their families struggle just to make ends meet. Government should offer struggling families proven tools to help parents become more financially secure and save to send their kids to college, so that their children have an opportunity to become successful, independent adults.
Lesson 4: Speak to people’s belief in self-sufficiency.
Our research reinforced the supreme importance of self-reliance to Americans. When survey participants rated the main factors contributing to financial security, the top answers—hard work, ambition, and financial savvy—rest on the shoulders of the individual.
A message about self-sufficiency convinced 75 percent of those we surveyed to support government action to address poverty:
Our country is stronger when everyone is self-sufficient and has the means to stand on their own two feet. It makes good sense for government to offer proven tools that help people become financially self-sufficient like saving to buy a home, sending their kids to college, and saving for a secure retirement.
Lesson 5: Describe programs as tools that empower people.
We found that people could accept an active government role when we described programs as “tools.” Tools are empowering; you can pick them up and put them down when you’re done. The user is in charge, and must have the skills and perseverance to get the job done.
This message resonated especially with men and with people who self-identified as Republicans:
Middle-class Americans are the engine of our economy. To get the economy moving again, it makes sense for government to offer proven tools that help people save to buy a home and start a business, so that more people can enter the middle class and achieve financial security.
These lessons speak to basic views Americans hold of their future, the role of government, and their fellow citizens. They can be the building blocks of a message to build support for government action to reduce income inequality and address other social issues too. We’ve applied these lessons to education, foreign aid, and other causes in our own work—by putting people in the picture in the right way, identifying aspirational goals people can share, defining the problem simply, and describing government solutions in empowering ways.