What are the harmful and false poverty narratives we aim to shift?

Some of the strongest held narratives in the U.S. are those about poverty. Because narratives are a lens through which we view and judge the world, narratives also shape how we interact with the world: what positions we take on policy, how we vote, and how we treat other people in our communities. False narratives are also harmful.

Policy and programs are less effective at addressing poverty when they are based on these false narratives. But this also presents an opportunity: changing false poverty narratives has the potential to shift support for effective social policies and programs that actually address poverty’s root causes.

These are the five false and harmful meta-narratives that we identified based on a national survey:

Personal fault

The idea that people who live in poverty are at fault for their situation due to characteristics they possess or their personality.

Welfare Exploitation

The idea that people who live in poverty are trying to exploit systems meant to help them

Man in business suit


Also known as “The American Dream.” The idea that only hard work is what is needed to overcome challenges and achieve success.

word town out of book or newspaper that say ignorant


The belief that people that are living in poverty cannot think or decide for themselves, that they need “saving” from someone that understands their situation better than they do.


Sometimes referred to the birth lottery; that poverty is a given in life, some people are just born into it, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Ideology & World View affect narratives

Harmful narratives exist across the US

The journey starts by first establishing national rates for the endorsement of these five narratives. We began by investigating how strongly US citizens endorsed these five narratives across the country with a sample of over 1,000 participants. We also investigated how strongly citizens endorse these narratives in cities like New York and Washington, DC. 

  • These constructs are not unique to political leaning or party affiliation

  • For example, there are a fair amount of Democrats among high-SDO respondents

Download the final report
graph 1
Graph 2
Who holds these narratives, and why?

Certain demographics are predictive of endorsing harmful poverty narratives across the board. In particular, high income earners and men are more likely to endorse harmful narratives and college degree holders, and people low in religiosity are less likely.

Graph 2
People’s attitudes towards
poverty: it’s complicated
But that’s not the full story

Worldviews are significant predictors of endorsement of harmful narratives. In fact, these worldviews had stronger associations with endorsement of harmful narratives than demographics did.

  • Social dominance orientation (SDO): a preference for intergroup hierarchy and anti-egalitarianism
  • Right wing authoritarianism (RWA): submission to traditional authorities and values
  • Racial resentment (RRS): a measure of symbolic racism
Graph 4
Graph 4
Thinking styles matter, too

Along with worldviews, the way a person thinks is a strong predictor of how likely they are to endorse harmful narratives. People who tend to be close-minded and have a more intuitive thinking style are more likely to endorse harmful narratives than those who are open-minded and and have a more effortful thinking style. 

Our research is ongoing and the journey continues. The only thing we can state with certainty is that understanding why people endorse harmful narratives is an effective path to identify evidence-based strategies to combat these narratives. 

What narratives do you hold about poverty?

Narratives are collections of stories that communicate a central idea. We use narratives to make sense of the world, including how we understand poverty. This 5-minute quiz will assess your beliefs and attitudes about five common poverty narratives and show you how you compare to others. Ready to see where you land?