How to Talk About Poverty (And How Not to)

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to help lead a presentation at #ComNet14, to share lessons from a year-long message research project we conducted in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Global Strategy Group. One key takeaway: our audience of foundation and nonprofit communicators are as conflicted about poverty messaging as the general public. Program staff and in-house officers tend to toe the academic line, using framing and language that turns off civilians.

Poverty is a loaded topic, with three out of four Americans still saying they believe that “those born into poverty can still be successful if they’re determined and willing to work hard.” But we learned through a year-long message research investigation that there are winning ways to engage policymakers, influencers and other public audiences. A national survey revealed that while people believe poverty is cyclical, they also want solutions. They connect family income status and stability with access to quality education and job skills development.

Even before our presentation was through, questions were already firing: did people of different races demonstrate different opinions? What about the wealthy? What about the greater economic trends? We fielded enough questions and differing opinions to launch another year’s worth of research! While our research was particular to Casey’s two-generation approach, some of our key findings on messaging and advocacy language apply more broadly as well.

Poverty Messaging Recommendations

Avoid using these terms to introduce a conversation, even with potential advocates:

  • “Giving families the resources they need”
  • “In need,” “disadvantaged,” “less fortunate”
  • “Financial security” or ”success”
  • “Economic mobility”or “independence”
  • “Toxic stress”
  • “Work ethic”
  • “Supporting families”

Our research suggests that some phrases resonate better. Stay true to mission and your work, but to avoid conflict and confusion, try to use these terms where possible:

  • Giving families the tools they need
  • Low-income
  • Financial stability
  • Economic opportunity
  • Reduce parents’ stress
  • Personal responsibility
  • Strengthening families

I find this endlessly fascinating and strategically urgent so if you have research tools or knowledge to add to the mix, holler back! Contact me at or @jenniferhahnny