Since the 1964 War on Poverty began, the dominant narrative about poverty in the United States is that the fault lies with the individual because they lack discipline.
Since that time, assistance programs have generally addressed poverty largely by “bringing discipline to the lives of the poor”* rather than actually seeking to eradicate it. Programs like food and housing assistance are often conditional based on good behavior, with policies “emphasizing competition and reward for performance.”* Welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families emphasize behavioral expectations and have penalties for noncompliance. These approaches do little to stop poverty, but rather codify the importance of “teach[ing] prevailing norms…that keep aid recipients moving along their designated paths.”* This is especially prevalent, and problematic, for families in communities of color.
We believe that poverty comes at the intersection of several varying life circumstances and that a “one-size fits all” solution that emphasizes discipline is an ill-equipped response.
Instead, we find that letting families drive the solution leads to more successful results—results that rely less on disciplining people and more on hearing what inspires families to move out of, and stay out of, poverty. When we listen to families, we find our biases are challenged; we come to understand that the things we think families need may in fact do more harm than good. Common definitions of financial security, for instance, might look different from one family to the next. For example, savings is not only what a person collects in a bank account. Rather, savings to a family might mean participating in a lending circle or planning for big purchases today in preparation for times when work is limited due to seasonal work cycles. If we approach our solutions to poverty with the mindset that “poor people” are incapable of making the “right” decisions for themselves and others, then we miss the opportunity to achieve greater impact and the potential decline in poverty rates in our communities.
We believe lasting economic security is possible if we take an alternative approach, using human centered design that takes direction from families to develop solutions that lead to increased income and assets.
This design approach informs our belief that all people are resilient and resourceful. We challenge the dominant narrative that “the poor,” particularly people of color, are lazy and inferior, and therefore deserve to live in poverty. By directly consulting with families living in poverty, tapping both their insights and resourcefulness, TPA works to design solutions that promote and amplify this family resilience.
Moreover, we believe that when organizations embed a person-centered design approach into their practice, they begin to shift their own internal bias about what people living in poverty are capable of achieving.
They become more authentic partners to the individuals and families they serve, and develop services based on the assumption that families are resourceful and capable. Organizational culture changes from “bottom line,” results-oriented standards of market performance, to one that is person-focused and respectful of the unique assets within each family.
*Disciplining the poor: Neoliberal paternalism and the persistent power of race by Joe Soss, Richard C Fording, Sanford F Schram (University of Chicago Press, 2011)