Want to Help People in Poverty? Meet Them Where They Are

To be successful in reaching the poor, common-sense communication often prevails.
April 21, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Scholars, public policy experts and non-profit organizations have all conducted studies and made countless attempts to reach the poor with effective programs and practices that will give them a way up and a way out. However, oftentimes these well-thought-out, carefully designed attempts that should have been successful are failures due to a sad lack of participation by the very individuals the efforts aim to assist. It is one of the greatest frustrations for those who continue to slog along in the trenches of the still un-won war on poverty.

Sometimes the prescription for success is a simple dose of common sense. If we want people to participate in our well-meaning efforts to improve their lives, we need to do more than try to sell the program like a consumer product. We need to meet people in a safe, non-threatening and familiar environment. In short, we need to go to where they are.

So, where is that? Sometimes the answer can be found by following the smart money – by looking at those private sector service providers that can afford to do serious market research and then carefully plan their moves accordingly. For example, health care insurance giant Humana reaches out through Wal-Mart to connect with people who need their Medicare Part D and prescription coverage. Looking at the demographics of that situation, it’s relatively easy to see the solid statistical science and common sense in that match up. No additional expensive studies are required. Humana has already paid the bill.

In a short video (above) and a full length audio interview (below), Maia Jachimowicz, director of policy for the city of Philadelphia, describes how her city experimented with various ways to reach its poverty-level client base.

"We decided to do a series of experiments – a series of tests both with the medium of what we are delivering and with the method of delivery,” she says. "What we found was that the medium really matters. Well, let me first say outreach really matters in that anything that we did had an impact as opposed to doing nothing, which is great." She goes on to describe how doing something different such as sending material in a "big brown envelope" with a handwritten address really got attention and produced better results. "And that's a wonderful finding for us to have as we move into the next generation of our project," she notes.

Among the more successful programs designed to aid the urban poor and homeless – and certainly one of my personal favorites – is Project Homeless Connect. Launched in 2004 by former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the concept has been widely copied by cities all over the United States.

The program involves gathering service providers and charities for a concentrated and quick (usually one day) effort to reach and serve the homeless population. The location is often in the city center or otherwise somewhere in close proximity to concentrations of homeless citizens. It is intentionally designed and perceived as a welcoming and uncomplicated experience. Goods and services are offered at no charge by businesses, agencies, organizations and volunteers. In general, offerings include various medical services and screenings, personal care items and services such as haircuts, legal aid, substance abuse and nutritional counseling, and more. When done well, the atmosphere is inviting and almost festive.

I remember our first experience with Project Homeless Connect in Chattanooga. Our pop-up operation was located in an open pavilion near downtown and we experienced instant success. We had attempted to get the message out through the distribution of printed fliers, but when the day actually arrived, the word spread quickly.

My fondest memory involves a dentist that can only be described as a somewhat wild but instantly warm and engaging character. He arrived early with necessary supplies and a small staff of assistants and unloaded two folding chaise lounges – the kind you can buy at any big box retailer – along with a number of concrete blocks. He announced that “this is how it's done on the third-world mission field” and proceeded to set up with the chairs elevated on the blocks. People waited in line anxiously at this unconventional, yet efficient and effective "open air" dental office throughout the day.

The number of extractions the dentist and his staff performed was nothing less than astounding. It sounds dramatic and it was, but can you imagine being homeless with a bad tooth? In subsequent years we found that the dentist was one of the more popular heroes and a major drawing card in our Chattanooga version of Project Homeless Connect. The word got out about him. At the risk of a terrible pun, you might say that it was through "word of mouth.”

In this new day of digital technology and social networking, it is tempting to assume that everyone has instant and easy access to the information they need about the goods and services available to them. However, the world of information has never been more shattered and complex. In the 1980s, we could reach the population of a city by calling a news conference and all the major media providers would show up, play it out at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., and then reprint it in the morning paper (which people actually read back then).

Today, people scroll through 300 channels and explore countless other options for information all day every day on the Internet. Try telling my 94-year-old mother-in-law that the information she needs about transportation or Meals On Wheels is readily available on a website. Try announcing new services to the poor and homeless by any means that might be considered conventional today, and the impact will most likely be less than desired. Just like Philadelphia, we must be ready to use unconventional measures to cut through the clutter and reach the intended target audience.

In a sense, the world may have changed, but the basic method of good communication remains the same. It's Marketing 101: Meet the people where they are.

You can hear more from Maia in her own words on the use of social norming, loss avoidance, and big brown envelopes in this City Accelerator edition of the podcast, For The Record (4:53).

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