Narrative work is required to address generations' worth of ideas behind poverty and ensure that future guaranteed income efforts can succeed. At SCG’s 2022 Policy Conference, Anne Price and Michael Tubb highlighted their recommendations for funders invested in advancing narrative change to achieve economic equity.
Even as new pilots like BIG:LEAP or completed GI programs like the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration ('SEED') try to provide data and framing to disrupt common ideas around public service programs and their recipients, there are still many pervasive myths attached to poverty. If guaranteed income efforts are to succeed moving forward, we must engage in narrative change strategies that confront the stigma attached to poverty and our nation's deeper investment in individualism.
Representations of Poverty
In February 2019, Stockton launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration ('SEED'), a guaranteed income initiative that distributed an unconditional $500 a month to 125 randomly selected residents for 24 months. SEED was the first mayor-led initiative in the United States, led by then-Stockton Mayor Michael D. Tubbs. During our conference session, Michael recounted that even before the city had chosen the recipients of the SEED money, the team was flooded by claims from people — across all racial, class, and ideological lines — stating that the recipients would spend the money on alcohol or drugs. Michael posted questions in response — Who are you picturing? What does this person look like or do? — to draw out the underlying assumptions in these claims.
The statements the SEED team received reveal more than just reservations about Stockton's GI pilot; they mirror the same narratives that policymakers have used for decades to justify their economic policy decisions that diminish social safety-net programs. Policymakers often have weaponized words such as "scoundrel," "cheat," or other racialized terms to evoke images of people (primarily people of color) who are "working the system" for economic benefit. During recent debates over Build Back Better, we've heard legislators oppose the bill's proposed tax credit because they believe parents will not spend the credit on their children but will use it on drugs or gambling. These intentional descriptors are rooted in long-time narratives about poor people being "lazy," "shiftless," and "living off government checks."
On the cultural level, we continue to believe and reinforce these ideas that justify — and ostensibly — exacerbate poverty. We have not done enough to confront the stigma surrounding people experiencing economic precarity. For guaranteed income pilots to succeed, we must understand the role of narrative in maintaining the status quo.
One of the most prevalent narratives sustaining poverty is that it results from personal failure. We believe that if people had managed their money better, wiser, or more responsibly, they would have more of it and would not be financially unstable. This idea that poverty is a personal failing results in the acceptance and justification of inequity. On a more fundamental level, these perceptions of poverty stem from our country's deep investment in narratives of individual effort as the key determinants of who has and who doesn't. Individualism supports that our country's economic markets are neutral and that those with access to money and resources work harder and are therefore more deserving. On the other hand, those living in poverty do not deserve empathy or economic support because they are at fault for their condition.
The dominant narratives underpinning poverty are easy to believe because they claim that everyone has an equal opportunity. They assert that you can succeed regardless of circumstance if you do everything right. When opponents suggest the opposite — that our economic system is built on the historic and continued exploitation of people of color and poor communities — there is an unsettling dissonance because it does not align with the story our country believes about itself and the opportunities it offers. Our political imagination and reality will continue to be shaped and limited by the dominant narratives we leave unchallenged.
Combining Narrative Change with Guaranteed Income Work
One of the goals of the guaranteed income pilot programs is to create long-term change in how federal policies address poverty and promote economic mobility. However, regardless of the success of the pilot programs and the data they produce, changing national policy will be difficult, if not impossible, if there isn't a simultaneous effort to change our cultural and ideological landscape. For a long time, our sector regarded narrative and culture change work as superfluous. However, today, we are seeing hard-won policy battles overturned or on the brink of being undone because advocates did not fully achieve broad cultural support.
Challenging dominant narratives and elevating new possibilities must become a central component of philanthropy's power-building strategy to achieve and maintain policy change. Below are several ways philanthropy can engage in effective narrative change work to advance guaranteed income efforts.
Contesting Dominant Narratives
Funders invested in narrative change work must begin at step one, which entails identifying the dominant narratives in our culture and unpacking how they influence and limit their work. Narrative change isn't about choosing the right words or broadcasting soundbites; shifting narratives fundamentally changes how people make sense of the world and relate to one another. Step one involves recognizing our sector's long-standing ideas, assumptions, and harmful narratives and how we implicitly and explicitly perpetuate them. Narrative work is an active process of unlearning our most ubiquitous and deeply held beliefs. Much like anti-racist work, if we are not actively challenging and undoing dominant narratives, then we are complicit in maintaining them.
Centering Those Closest to the Issues
Our culture uses many words to describe people — caretakers, frontline workers, hardworking teachers — but more often than not, we place these descriptors upon people instead of asking them how they want to be defined. In designing counter-narratives, funders should ensure that these new stories come directly from the people closest to the problem we are addressing. It is time for those most impacted by systemic oppression — those who have the experiences and the answers — to have an opportunity to shape the narrative. We need to allow them to tell a new story built on their imaginations and language to offer new ways to understand our world. Philanthropy has an opportunity and responsibility to redirect power and agency so that people who have been actively erased and silenced in our cultural landscape can imagine a radically different and bolder future.
While the data produced other promising findings (better mental health for participants, reduction in income volatility, etc.), it became clear that data alone would only move people so far. As Michael stated, "data can move people to the edge of their political imagination, but it will not convince them to jump beyond it." In some cases, data can even have the opposite of the intended effect, where through selective interpretation, it can strengthen the narratives and worldviews that people already hold. So, while data can be a powerful tool in enacting change, we must pair it with stories that move people. To that end, the SEED program leveraged participant experiences to strengthen their findings. For example, they elevated a story of a father who was able to take time off of work from his low-paying job so he could interview for a higher-paying one. Another account was of a woman who was able to stop doing DoorDash so she could find one solid job. The data from the SEED program highlighted how "financial scarcity generates time scarcity" and the stories that elevated the same — when folks experience less financial instability, they have more time to improve their lives. The learnings from the SEED pilots contributed to a story that highlights how the issue wasn't a lack of skills or a personal failing; it was poverty and the lack of time and resources.
Funding An Ecosystem to Change the Narrative
Narrative change is a collective effort. It's not about giving one organization all the money so they can do testing and draft talking points for everyone. Funding also cannot be siloed or one-off; funders must consider funding various organizations engaging in cultural work to create a narrative echo chamber. Narrative requires repetition and experimentation. We must confront poverty through multiple mediums and cultural forms — journalism, public art murals, televisions, and movies. We need media that speaks to a different story — a more authentic narrative — than what we've seen historically. Challenging and replacing dominant narratives will take trial and error, collaboration, and time. We can't undo four hundred years of ideas that perpetuate personal responsibility, the self-made man, and individualism overnight — it is a lifetime's work. Philanthropy must fund the entire process and ecosystem to ensure that guaranteed income pilots or any other coalition focused on eliminating poverty can enact meaningful change.
We invite you to watch Michael Tubb's and Anne Price's entire conversation from our 2022 Policy Conference on YouTube.