A Grand Challenge: Changing the National Conversation about Poverty and Economic Mobility

Several years ago, 209 college students were surveyed about their impressions of “the poor.” As far as most were concerned, living in poverty was roughly equivalent to being a bad person. Compared to middle-class people, they said, people experiencing poverty were more violent and less responsible, angrier and less family-oriented, and more unpleasant and less moral. The attitudes the students expressed weren’t based on 209 unique sets of personal experiences. They had been absorbed, unconsciously, from the public and private discourse about poverty in America.

The poverty-is-a-moral-failure storyline is not the only myth in circulation. Another one goes to the opposite extreme: people in poverty are trapped by the system and powerless to act. There’s also the familiar rags-to-riches trope, which suggests that, if people would only put their minds to it and act virtuously, unfathomable success is right around the corner.

The politicians, powerbrokers, and voters who together determine public policy can get stuck in these false narratives. Our society hears confusing, conflicting, and just plain inaccurate stories about what poverty is, why it happens, who it happens to, and how to address it. And it’s awfully hard to find effective solutions when you’ve mistaken the nature of the problem.

For individuals and communities experiencing poverty, these stereotypes are also debilitating. I remember meeting a woman in the College Hill neighborhood in St. Louis, where residents are hard-pressed to find a store where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, much less a job. She told me, “We’ve internalized low expectations.”

As a nation, we need to start telling and hearing more accurate accounts about poverty — stories that start not with judgment but with humanity, stories that make us want to get to the bottom of hard problems instead of punish or demean.

We need to understand the enormous complexity and constant strain of living in poverty. We need to see that poverty does not just happen to “someone else,” that millions of us are just one piece of bad luck away from hardship and that many of us have experienced periods of poverty during our lives. And we need to acknowledge the truth: that systemic racism and other forms of bias push millions of people into poverty and keep them there.

That’s why, today, we’re announcing a new initiative we’re calling Voices for Economic Opportunity. In collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Raikes Foundation, we are asking anyone from anywhere — and especially those with experience navigating poverty — to send us their ideas about how to help shift the discourse about poverty in the United States. To develop those ideas, we will be offering multiple grants of $100,000 each. We will make our funding decisions based on the advice of external reviewers who represent different types of expertise on poverty and how to effectively communicate stories. We’re proud to be working with each of these foundations, who will bring to this collaboration their unique expertise and experience working to address inequity in the United States.

The Gates Foundation launched its U.S. Economic Mobility and Opportunity strategy last year to complement our longstanding work in public education. To ground this work, we invested in a bipartisan group called the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty and over the last few years spent time meeting with people in communities across the United States to learn about poverty, economic mobility, and opportunity from their perspective. Based on those conversations, we decided to emphasize five priorities for our economic mobility work:

1) generating data policymakers and practitioners can use to make decisions; 2) helping those who don’t see a successful career in their future carve out better opportunities; 3) supporting community organizations to implement economic mobility strategies; 4) connecting organizations so that they can share successes, failures, and strategic thinking; and 5) increasing public understanding of poverty and mobility.

The Gates Foundation has always been about trying to crack the hardest problems. For 15 years, we’ve been running a program called Grand Challenges to meet the biggest challenges in global health. Instead of giving a grant to one team to try one approach to an exceedingly complex issue, Grand Challenges describes the issue and invites applicants from many different walks of life to suggest a path forward.

We are using the Grand Challenges model for Voices for Economic Opportunity because the American discourse on poverty is one of those exceedingly complex issues.

First, there’s the complexity of helping shape something as diffuse as a national conversation. Then there’s the intricacy of poverty itself. It’s multifactorial, and most of those factors are all but invisible. Poverty has countless manifestations, and every one of them looks different in different people. It discriminates based on age, race, geography, gender, health, mental health, sexuality, disability, and every other way in which people can be marginalized.

No foundation can solve American poverty. But we know that it needs to be solved, and we know that the best thing we can do is listen to those who are more knowledgeable about the issues than we are and determine alongside them where our resources can do the most good.

This is just one initiative related to one priority in one strategy to help meet a massive challenge. But helping Americans like those 209 college students — who represent so many of us — better understand people experiencing poverty is a start. It’s a start that we hope will help even more funders, leaders, individuals, and communities come together to focus on strategies for helping the most vulnerable among us.

We are committed to supporting our partners around the country as they attack the root causes of poverty. Because if we don’t address the inequities that tear at the fabric of our society, we will never achieve our full potential as a nation.

Director, Economic Mobility and Opportunity, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation