Breaking New Ground in the Fight Against Poverty

May 21, 2015 in Blog

“If you don’t have money, if you don’t come from money, then your whole life is a struggle.”

Though Mark* said this with a smile, we sensed his exhaustion. He spoke lovingly of his 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, but explained that it was difficult to balance looking after his family with complicated work schedules. Mark typically has several jobs at a time, and spends a lot of time traveling from one workplace to another.

This also means that, despite his hard work, the family’s income fluctuates greatly. Most months, they barely break even. A few days before we spoke to Mark the family car had broken down and needed $1,800 worth of repairs. He told us that he and his girlfriend had hoped to put away a large chunk of his most recent paycheck for the future, but now every spare cent would be used to fix the car.

Mark is just one of the 25 parents from across the US that we spoke to as part of the ideas42 Poverty Interrupted initiative. Through these interviews, and working with experts and practitioners, our goal was to learn about how living in poverty shapes the context of peoples’ lives, and what effect it has on their decisions and actions. Each parent shared their own version of the struggle Mark described: getting around on unreliable public transportation, keeping track of the requirements for various benefit programs, and looking for work when there is none around. But above all they talked about the challenges they face in trying to ensure a brighter future for their children.

One mother we spoke to in Tulsa bluntly described her fears: “I have anxiety about being a single parent in a poor area…statistically, my kids shouldn’t succeed.”

The real tragedy is that her fears are warranted: more than 6 in 10 children born into the lowest income group will not earn enough as adults to enter the middle class.

Poverty Interrupted aims to change this. It is a radical venture that aims to improve the life path of these families by using insights from behavioral science to increase the impact of more traditional anti-poverty efforts.

In a new white paper, ideas42 outlines a new perspective on poverty—as a unique context that elicits a predictable set of responses, rather than a result of personal failure or character defects—and charts a path forward based on cutting-edge research in the behavioral sciences.

This path begins with three design principles, and includes concrete recommendations that range from small nudges to overhauls of existing support services that can be tailored to fit the needs (and budgets) of a wide range of communities, organizations, and programs.

First, successful policies and programs should identify, and then cut the many different types of costs imposed on families with low incomes–temporally, financially, and cognitively. We might do this by reducing the barriers to entry for programs like subsidized childcare or job training. A more radical innovation would be a “Common Application” for public benefits. So instead of applying separately for food, rent, and home heating assistance, Mark’s family could fill out one set of paperwork to access a wide range of services.

Second, we should create slack for families who often have no safety net when a shock like Mark’s car trouble arises. This could be extra income or extra time. If a program valued time as money and supported Mark with credits for a laundry service, he’d have a few more hours each week to spend with his kids, or to pick up an additional shift at work to replenish his savings.

Finally, policy-makers and providers should reframe programs in ways that empower clients rather than reinforce stigma. Treating parents as experts on their own lives and including them in key decisions, such as the type of support they receive and the goals they’d like to set for their families, is one way to give control back to parents.

These ideas are just a few of the recommendations laid out in our new white paper. It is our hope that this paper catalyzes a movement to apply behavioral science and design to efforts to reduce poverty. Over the coming months, we’ll be seeking additional funding and hoping to work with direct service organizations to design, prototype, and test specific behaviorally-informed interventions.

With this new approach, we want to ensure that although Mark’s life (and the lives of millions of other parents) has been a struggle, his children’s needn’t be.

Click here to read and share the white paper. To learn more or get involved, please contact ideas42 Vice President Anthony Barrows: Anthony@ideas42.org

*Not his real name