Getting traction against poverty requires increasing investments and sophisticated policy. The business has a key role to play alongside governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (Giesler and Veresiu 2014). Yet, despite the best intentions, many domains of poverty risk being mired in stagnation unless fundamental changes transform the nature of policymaking.
In particular, a large number of policies rely on single-factor triggers, for example, low income or unemployment. This approach sidesteps the possibility that individuals can be vulnerable without necessarily residing in the lowest-income strata and that others with low income are not necessarily vulnerable if they are supported by ample social networks and resources (Viswanathan et al. 2012). Furthermore, intersecting vulnerabilities often create life deprivations that are far greater than the sum of their single-factor parts and that shape lived experiences whereby one factor amplifies the experience of another deprivation. As depicted in Figure 1, individual sources of vulnerability (e.g., economic) overlap within the lived experience of an individual and produce a kaleidoscope of intersectional vulnerability (left side of Figure 1). However, the policy is often designed or implemented in ways that address these sources of vulnerability in isolation and neglect their intersections.
For example, individuals who are financially deprived and who have immigrant status are especially vulnerable in the area of health care under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA). This welfare reform act was shaped by discourse that portrayed aid recipients with pejorative and unidimensional labels, such as “welfare queen.” As such, provisions and guidelines under the act lacked sensitivity to intersecting vulnerabilities, in this case, restricting Medicaid eligibility for immigrants. In many states, this policy inhibits access for and/or fosters tension between impoverished immigrants and impoverished minorities (Filindra 2012; Ku and Matani 2001). Thus, immigrant status exacerbates the experience of low income (and vice versa) in the area of health care. It is important to note that the influences of these two disadvantages are hardly distinct. Rather, the way that a person experiences one disadvantage is inevitably shaped by the other present disadvantage(s).
Individuals who are at the intersections of disadvantages may struggle to meet their needs when policies are (1) developed using a single-factor lens, (2) activated by single- factor trigger points, and/or (3) developed to offer single- factor interventions. While there is value in concentrating on a specific facet of poverty and creating policy to address an area of disadvantage, this approach can also systematically constrain our understanding of a more complex reality and may render some groups “invisible.” That is, groups of vulnerable people can be overlooked at the margins of society and fall outside the domain of poverty policies due to the omission of intersecting factors. In order to examine this issue, we adopt the definition of policy invisibility offered by Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach (2008): a “condition where a person or group experiencing multiple disadvantages finds themselves outside the umbrella of policy benefit or protection.”