Child DevelopmentHuman RightsIncome disparity and poverty

Lifting People Out of Poverty Is Tough Enough. The Wrong Words Make It Harder.

November 24, 2014   |   Jennifer Hahn

I recently spent the day with intelligent and earnest foundation leaders in child and family advocacy. They create and implement national programs to reduce poverty for families with children. I had to cajole, shame and plead with them to stop saying they were “incubating innovative reforms” and “providing supports for parents.”

Let’s be clear: I am fully committed to these activities, as are they.

But here’s the rub. When you tell a room full of community leaders, funders, program providers or just regular people these very words, you run some major risks. You might:

a. Cause their eyes to glaze over
b. Reinforce that nothing will change
c. Confuse and alienate them
d. Trigger a hostile response

“Reform” tells people the work of alleviating poverty is broken. “Incubating” is creepy when applied to people and conjures images of babies in incubators. When paired with “innovative” – which may be the most tired word of 2014 – it’s redundant. Typical foundation-speak turns most people off. I am in no way the first communications pro to point this out, but I fear we’re not making headway.

Here is how I know this. I had the opportunity to lead a year-long message research project in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Global Strategy Group. We interviewed people inside the foundation, their peers and experts outside the foundation, and we read everything we could get our hands on, including multiple studies our colleagues have conducted on the same issue. We held four focus groups in Dallas and Baltimore – a “red” city and a “blue” one – and asked them if poverty was a problem and what, if anything, could be done about it. We listened to the voices of average Americans, and we learned from them. Then just to be sure their opinions were typical, we conducted a nationally representative sample of 1001 Americans.

Talking poverty is a minefield. Meanwhile, program staff and foundation leaders sound like academics, using language that turns off civilians. It may be true that to lift families out of poverty we need to “support the whole family,” but national data tells us that is not what the majority of Americans say they want.

Three out of four Americans say they believe that “those born into poverty can still be successful if they’re determined and willing to work hard.” But we learned there are winning ways to engage policymakers, influencers and other public audiences.

Here are some ways to talk solutions.

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

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

Our research suggests that some phrases resonate better. Stay true to your mission and 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”

If we want to get anywhere, we have to start speaking plain English and using real-world examples. We will not sway public opinion by continuing to talk about “services, supports and programs.” Many have empathy for kids, but they really don’t for the adults. They want parents to lift themselves out of poverty for the benefit of their own children.

If you don’t believe that the jargon is hurting us, consider some other gems from our training: “Children live in the context of families.” Why not just say children live in families? “We partner with placed-based providers.” Huh? Must you use “partner” as a verb, and do you seriously expect anyone to know what a “placed-based provider” is?!?

Let’s talk about helping people get the skills they need to get a better job. Policies that help working parents keep more of what they earn. Offering opportunities for all people to achieve financial stability for their families. The bottom line is that our job as communicators is to always simplify and clarify. Ours is a battle against complication and confusion. Poverty is nuanced and complicated enough.

Jennifer Hahn
Jennifer Hahn is a NYC-based communications specialist with more than 20 years of battle scars to prove it. Currently a Senior Vice President at Fenton NYC, her approach might be called “Tough Love with Strategic Flair.” She cares deeply about social change and believes that by strengthening her clients’ voices she can do her part. Follow her @jenniferhahnny.