One Dimensional – Data’s Role In Poverty: A Discussion With Anne Price

In the second episode of ‘TPA Voices’, we sat down with Anne Price, Executive Director of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development (Insight CCED). For this discussion, we wanted to chat about the role that data has played in shaping how we serve those experiencing poverty. Teaser: it may not always tell the real story.

Diana Dollar
Your organization is conducting research about the truths regarding poverty. What have you discovered about the way data today is used to reinforce negative stereotypes and harmful narratives about poverty—or about people who are impacted by poverty, especially people who are coming from communities of color?

Anne Price
Well, we have been deeply steeped in understanding how narratives shape policy and how they shape our understanding of how people are living. So our research has focused on how people think about the relationship of person-hood and work, and the idea that many Americans really think that in order for someone to be a complete, a full person, that they have to work.

This idea about success in America is really tied to the idea of becoming a person—and a full person—and for those that are not seen as full people, there’s a sense that they’re getting handouts, and this creates an endless, expensive dependency on government. So we’re trying to unpack some of those narratives for us to really begin to change the types of policies that will make the most difference in people’s lives.

When we think about data, I think there really is a loop between narrative and the type of research we conduct—the type of data that we put forward—to illustrate what’s happening to people who are struggling to get by. It’s really a circuitous loop where the type of research that’s being done is predicated on the notion that somehow poor people have some level of deficiency, whether it is stigmatizing out-of-wedlock birth, or in valorizing marriage, or just thinking about the decisions people make.

Diana Dollar
There’s a report that was released this year by the US Partnership on Mobility From Poverty that describes the attributes of “the poor”, and also attributes of the middle-class. So, getting perspectives from people out in the public about what characteristics they would attribute to the two. And in this report, we learned that those kinds of characteristics people associate with others who are poor include that they’re angry, they’re dirty, unpleasant, and even violent. Yet, when you contrast that with middle-class characteristics, people are describing middle-class as family-oriented, hard-working, moral, and responsible. What is this kind of data doing to reinforce these perceptions that people who are poor are deficient? What does that mean for people of color, particularly for African Americans?

Anne Price
Let me just start by saying, let’s really think about who is actually elevating this research. Who are the researchers in the work and how are they thinking about poverty? When you think about it, a lot of the research that’s being done is being conducted by typical, middle-class, white researchers.

I was just looking at research that was done a few years ago and it was really saying that not only does behavior matter, it matters more than ever, and it was really talking about the idea that some middle-class people are marrying more and have more stable incomes, while those with lower incomes or doing a reverse. This well-known researcher is really saying that the poor need to adopt more mainstream behaviors, more of what is seen as middle-class behaviors. So let’s first take a look at who is actually doing the research. What are the questions they’re asking, and how those questions themselves lead to reinforcing narratives that stereotype the poor.

Then, we have to really reconcile the fact that many of these narratives are really deeply seeded and genderize and express racist tropes that are so deeply historic, they almost really go back to our founding. We see them repeated over and over again in a number of different types of economic policies. So we’ve got to think about who’s doing the research, what questions are they asking, and how those questions really still come from these very negative and harmful narratives and then get reinforced, once data and research have been released. The talk comes out about how single mothers, for example, are struggling, and it reinforces the idea that there’s something profoundly deficient in single motherhood. And that’s what’s typically thought of black women, and black motherhood and all of these things are kind of reinforcing each other.

Diana Dollar
Going into that a little bit more, and just thinking about the philanthropic space, so much of what’s happening with providing resources into communities come from philanthropic dollars, though definitely government dollars, too. So how is it being reinforced, this historical context that you’re talking about that seems to carry on, no matter how many times we want to talk about innovation.

Anne Price
I think that there are some shifts. I have to say that this is a really sticky issue because it’s such a dominant narrative. One reason people blame the poor for their poverty is that they fundamentally hold the belief that this is a just world and a fair place. That in general, we deserve what we get in life. People who are in institutions that hold those beliefs that are really deeply seeded, tend to then want to hold up or invest in, programs and policies that really tend to deal with behavior.

I do think that a couple of things are happening. I think there’s more recognition around the harms that these narratives are causing, in very real ways. Some funders are moving towards more structural kinds of solutions, which really causes you to question these kinds of behavioral approaches. So we’re seeing some progress and I think it’s still a tad bit slow going because these are very difficult narratives to overcome. I do see a number of people in the field really wanting to tackle these harmful narratives and really trying to figure out how to do that.

Diana Dollar
Going back to thinking about data, let’s dive a little bit deeper in terms of how it’s being used in human services to design and to deliver programs in communities of poverty and even thinking of that within communities of color.

Anne Price
One thing that we’re coming to realize is the way that we report data, the way that we collect it, fundamentally will reinforce the narrative. It’s so prevalent, particularly around single parenthood, and as you know, having fewer resources, we tend to really look at the outcomes of children. So academic achievement… and maybe that’s lower than other groups. In people’s minds that really just says, that’s because they are making poor choices. So the data, and the way we collect it, and what we report, I think, is very one dimensional and very flat. It doesn’t really bring in any kind of analysis as to the conditions in which people are living, or the way that they’re living within institutions, and how they interact with those institutions, how those institutions work, how barriers are in place, and what causes those barriers. Very little attention is paid to the fact that what we’re seeing today is a direct result of conscious and intentional decisions that we make about who we support and how we support them.

I think that there’s really a lack of creativity and thinking about how we collect data, and how we research those who are struggling. In some ways, we over-research. There’s so much research, and it tends to be repeated types of studies that have looked at the same thing over and over again. Particularly around things like marriage, and that people who are not married do worse economically, in some ways, but we never really get to the full story. For example, when you really look at issues around wealth and look at black families who are married, we see that they actually have less wealth than white single mothers, in some cases. Marriage just does not have that pay-off in the same way it does for other groups. And that kind of research is hardly examined. So we one, still continue to create myths because we’re not actually really looking at a full scope of data, and we’re not really trying to look for a complete story. So there’s a ways to go in thinking about how research, and how it’s conducted, continues to take us to the same place.

Diana Dollar
You’re doing a great deal of work in terms of this idea of revealing the truths about how data are being used, and just overall, the truths about people and wealth, specifically people of color in California across the nation. So taking a more positive turn on this, what’s happening to shift these harmful narratives into messages that are uplifting communities or at least proposing to do so?

Anne Price
We’ve been actually working and convening a group of folks here in the bay area, both economic and racial justice organizations who have really said that we understand that these narrative are getting in the way of our ability to effectively win campaigns, or to make progress in a way that we think needs to be made. One thing I think is so interesting about this approach is we’ve actually created a learning and practice community that’s analyzing, visioning, and experimenting with a new power narrative. Some of this work is really emergent and it really hasn’t been done collectively. Usually, we contract with a communications firm or someone does some type of communication and messaging analysis. We use and pick words sometimes that we know are better than others, but we’ve never really thought about creating this together.

For us, we think its really needed in the field. So we created this learning and practice community and we really want to do three things. We want to get a shared understanding of language and ones that are harmful and helpful. We want to analyze dominant narratives and we want to seed a vision for new narratives. What I think is so profoundly interesting about this group is they’re saying that the dominant narratives that we have right now are disconnecting us from our humanity and that by fundamentally denying black people’s humanity, we are actually sacrificing our own. So digging into the relationship between anti-black racism, this personal responsibility narrative, and this whole personhood piece is what we’re digging into and grappling with as a community. I think that’s really promising and I think it’s really innovative and emergent work.

Diana Dollar
So these new narratives, can you tell us a little bit about where are you at in terms of creating those new narratives? Do you have a sense of where it’s leading at this stage on a local level versus a national level?

Anne Price
Our goal is that first, as we dig into the relationship between those three things I just named, is that we want to actually collectively come up with and test narratives that we think could make a difference. This is us as a community saying, ‘Wait a minute, from our examination of language and narratives and looking at our own work, we’re really examining each one of us, our own work and what we’re doing. What could be some new power narratives?”.

In the next few months, we’re going to actually be able to come up with those narratives. Our next phase will be the system. How do they actually play, what works and what doesn’t work, and how we could start incorporating what does work into our own work each and every day. This is something that we want to share with the world, and in the field, when we’re done in the next few months—to really talk about the process and what we think the outcomes can be,

Diana Dollar
Well, I can say that we’re looking forward to seeing what comes out because I do agree that there’s a need for new language, and to be very mindful of what are we doing that is so subtle but is actually just contributing to the harm that’s happening in communities. It’s encouraging to hear that there is time and energy being spent in getting into the finer detail of words and the meaning of those words, and ultimately how we can start to chip away at completely sloughing off what those harmful narratives are that are out there that are only just reinforcing really bad policy, and really bad program delivery, across the country. So thank you for doing that.

If you want to learn more about the work being done at Anne’s organization, the Insight Center, visit their website at insightcced.org. Anne, you’ve also published a few blogs, ‘Person-hood Before Work’, and ‘A True Reconciliation: Addressing our Nation’s Social Safety Net.’. Both of those can be found on medium.com. Be on the lookout for the next episode of TPA voices in January, thank you and have a great rest of the year!

To hear the conversation, subscribe to the ‘TPA Voices’ podcast.

The Prosperity Agenda works to end persistent poverty by changing the way organizations think about, and create programs for, families under financial stress. Rejecting the dominant narrative that “the poor”, particularly people of color, are inferior and therefore deserve to live in poverty, TPA instead designs tools and methods that reflect the idea that all people are capable of making good decisions for themselves and their families.