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Lessons From Corporate America on Humanizing Poverty

Last year we completed what ended up being an intensely inspiring project...

Our client identified a customer group that they realized they hadn’t been serving to their fullest potential because it is a “target” that they knew very little about. Not only were they profoundly aware of this knowledge gap, but also that their ethnocentric point of view as a corporate culture was definitely going to be a road block on the innovation journey.

This set of humans our client sought so deeply to understand are American families and older adults living at or near the poverty line.

These are people who struggle to provide for themselves and their families and rely on “the system” to help them subsist. These are their customers and potential customers who spend their money from the bottom rungs of the hierarchy of needs and who typically get screened out of market research studies because their income falls below “acceptable” levels.

They are still on their journey and developing empathy every day that is fueling a rampant momentum in the socially forward activation of a newly invigorated corporate mission. And one big lesson they learned about this customer group is that money is not at the root of a person’s inability to break free from the grips of poverty, but it’s the degree to which our cultural views of poverty and social services systems are preventing meaningful relationship-building and provision of resources to allow people to do the work of living to their potential.

The reason they began to understand this (how most people begin to understand one another) is because they made a point to be present in the worlds of these customers, asking questions that go beyond the transactional nature typically used in market research to unearth the principles and behaviors that bring the highest common denominator values that these humans share to light. They unearthed a number of insights from this work which inspired a broad swath of innovation opportunities that, as it turns out, are acutely aligned with their corporate purpose.

This approach of developing empathy through values alignment is what has fueled Culture’s success in giving our corporate clients permission to grow their businesses by being more human.

While this may be an unusual target for consumer brands company to focus on, it is an approach to understanding that many big (and small) businesses are beginning to prioritize; aligning company and ultimately brand values with customer values to create “love connections” that inspire and motivate meaningful actions.

 But this approach is not one often seen applied (beyond the academic space) in the social services realm.

Why? This kind of work is not necessarily feasible for a public sector agency – for a number of systemic reasons that go beyond money. But perhaps the most obvious of which is that recipients of social services are not seen as “customers” but as burdens to the system and therefore not entitled to being understood on a human level in order to design more efficient and effective social services systems.

And delivering any kind of relevant product or service comes from making meaningful human connections. But that’s an easy thing to say. In order to innovate what is widely agreed-upon as a broken system, we must seek first to understand the human needs, rooted in the deepest-held values that unify this distinct cultural group within our American culture. We do this by understanding the context of the lives of the customers we serve.

It is important in Cultural Strategy work like this to address the anthropological challenge of cultural relativism (as we do here at Culture).

This theoretical guideline allows the story of that culture’s context and values system to be told from the perspective of the humans being served – in this case, customers of social services like SNAP (food stamps). Because nobody living outside their context can tell them anything about who they are, what they need and what their “problem” is unless they have lived on their block, in their lives, with their paycheck.

It is one thing to exist on the policy-side and use data to guide decisions. It is yet another to be on customer-service-facing end of social services and only see the tired, frustrated, impatient, sometimes unorganized and often seemingly “unmotivated” people rushing to get their benefits and get out the door. But if we take a moment to step in to the shoes of this set of struggling Americans, we learn a few things about why empowerment to lift one’s self out of poverty is lacking.

For example: when you spend all your time and energy working long hours for little pay (often in service oriented professions that most middle and upper class Americans couldn’t do without), managing tedious transactions with government agencies and also dong your best to care and provide for a family – there is little time to connect with yourself and your highest order needs, let alone make meaningful connections with others that inspire and motivate progress.

So how do we get “the system” to start realizing what at least our clients and many other businesses out there are already embracing – that people should be the bottom line and that meaningful progress comes from building relationships? What are the ways we can learn from the lives of people living in poverty – the values that motivate their behavior and ultimately what their unmet human needs are above and beyond physiological ones?

What if the system were easier to navigate? What if customers could spend less time filling out / following up on piles of paperwork and more time focusing on work and family? What if – once they got a better job and made just a little bit more money they were allowed to keep their benefits for a while to build a savings instead of having their benefits cut and ultimately falling behind (newsflash –a $5/hour salary increase doesn’t make up for having $700 a month in family food benefits cut). What if the experience of going to a social services office to apply for benefits was simply a more loving and less demoralizing experience?

It’s a hierarchy of needs issue. Subsistence is a basic human need. But when we don’t have what we need to survive and feel like the system doesn’t care, we don’t feel the sense of love and belonging that ultimately allows us to develop self-esteem and empower our move upward.

Perhaps government agencies can take some time to examine the value Cultural Strategy can bring to innovate social services.

If social science can be applied to innovate consumer products for the middle class, certainly it can be used to lift people out of poverty – helping our economy and our society to grow and thrive by creating a culture of belonging.

 

Image credit: connessioniprecarie.org

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