The Narratives of Poverty

Media stories contain poverty narratives if they tell us what people experiencing poverty or financial well being are like, what it is or feels like to experience poverty or financial wellbeing, or how people go from poverty to financial wellbeing or vice versa. After analyzing ~100,000 online news stories and ~75,000 tweets published between January and October 2020, eight distinct narratives emerged.

categoryVote for X

Arguments for and against economic conditions and policies are rendered through the lens of electoral politics, with parties and candidates center stage.

In this narrative, people in poverty hardly figure, except as instruments in others’ political agendas. The solution is the particular policies of a particular party or candidate.

The tone is generally advocating for or against candidates and parties.

categoryCapital & Labor

An implied causal chain between a growing economy, abundant jobs, high wages, and individual financial well-being spotlights macro-economic indicators.

In this narrative, people in poverty don’t have good enough jobs, due to economic factors. The solution is businesses booming out an abundance of good, high-wage jobs

The tone is generally dry and stats-driven.

categorySafety Net

Government programs to mitigate the systemic effects of poverty take center stage in often abstract discussions of need, cost, efficacy, efficiency, and trade-offs.

In this narrative, people in poverty are victims of circumstance, who rely on a social safety net to survive. The solution is more effective, efficient, and well resourced social programs.

The tone is generally informative to advocating.

categoryRobin Hood

Finger pointing at businesses and billionaires who pile up profit, while the 99% struggle, suffer, and raise their voices to “eat the rich.”

In this narrative, people are unable to access necessary resources hoarded by the 1%. The solution is redistributing wealth through tax, higher wages, and direct stimulus.

The tone is generally indignant and contemptuous of corporations and the rich.

categoryHelping Hands

The heroes are the helpers in these feel-good, food-focused, sometimes religiously inflected accounts of people “giving back” to a proverbial, persistent “poor.”

In this narrative, people in poverty just need a little helping hand from everyday heroes. The solution is communities coming together to help meet people’s basic material needs, though poverty will always be with us.

The tone is generally hero worship-y and heartwarming.

categoryThe Grind

Dispatches from a daily struggle to “touch money” chronicle first-hand the trials and tribulations of repeatedly reaching for financial well-being.

In this narrative, people should be doing whatever it takes to transcend poverty. The solution is perseverance, hard work, and a little luck to “strike it big.”

The tone is generally aspirational, resolute, and aimed at prosperity.

categoryEquity Gap

Intersectional stories of race and gender disparity illustrate how some people are more vulnerable to poverty and focus blame on inequitable systems.

In this narrative, people in poverty are marginalized and don’t have a fair chance. The solution is everyone gaining access to the same resources, e.g. education, jobs, wealth.

The tone is generally candid and earnest, advocating for justice.

categoryNot Like Us

Innuendo, association, and coded rhetoric conspire to cast people in poverty as bogey men threatening society from a shadowy otherworld.

In this narrative, people in poverty are sick, criminal, dirty, addicted, homeless, foreign, or otherwise not like “us”. The solution is “poor people” just disappearing: they leave, get locked up, deported.

The tone is generally matter of fact, targeting fear and disgust.

Comparing Narratives

There are eight distinct narratives of poverty in the U.S. See how they compare and how prevalent they are in the media.

Poverty in the News

All online news articlesPoverty-related news articles0.000000000050.000000000100.000000000150.0000000002001000004000008000001000000800,032110,7810.00.20.40.60.81.0

Poverty Narratives in News & Twitter

NewsTwitter0.000000000050.000000000100.000000000150.000000000200%12%24%36%48%40%23%10%4%8%10%2%1%41%30%7%6%6%5%3%1%Vote for XCapital & LaborRobin HoodHelping HandsSafety NetThe GrindEquity GapNot Like Us