The Power of Narrative in Economic Policy
By: Jhumpa Bhattacharya and Anne Price, Insight Center for Community Economic Development
In the summer of 2016, the Insight Center embarked on an ethnographic research project to develop a policy agenda to address economic well-being and inequality. A pioneering organization in racial wealth inequity work, we were eager to understand which bold economic policies would resonate with a cross section of Americans — rural, urban, liberal, conservative and across race. We wanted to test how policies like baby bonds, universal childcare, federal jobs guarantee and guaranteed income — among others — held water across groups, and how they needed to be messaged to garner support. What we found was no matter what the policy platform is, our policy work could fail immensely without first tackling narrative.
Narratives — our cultural understandings, frames of reference or mental models — play a significant role in how leaders create and implement policies, and how people on the ground react to them. More than just stories of specific people, narratives contribute to our sense of the world and helps us create order in a fairly chaotic landscape. Specific stories inform the narratives that we hold near and dear in our hearts and minds, and narratives in turn become an endless story that we build upon and continuously shape. For example, the “Great American Pioneer” was a story that contributed to the individualistic, “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “American Dream” narratives. That story has now morphed into the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, which contributes to the bootstraps and American Dream narrative. We bounce new ideas and concepts up against our deep-seated narratives, and our narratives inform who we build empathy for, and who we don’t.
What’s tremendously important to understand for those of us fighting for racial and economic justice in America, is that the narratives we hold are based on a hyper-focus on the individual versus systems, and are rooted in racism, xenophobia and sexism. This lethal combination makes it extremely difficult to pass the policies we need to make comprehensive, transformative structural change toward economic, racial and gender justice. As Rashad Robinson says, “Narrative builds power for people.” The question we must grapple with is, who are our current narratives building power for, and who do they purposefully leave behind?
In the course of our policy setting work, we realized that there were three quintessential harmful narrative buckets that we must name and address while pushing for policy change: notions of personal responsibility, personhood being tied to traditional ideas of work/having a paid job and pervasive anti-blackness/racial resentment. All three of these buckets hold major ramifications on who we see as deserving (and who we don’t) — and serve as a foundation to build our social and economic policies off of.
Below is a discussion of these three categories with quotes from the ethnographic research conducted in our project:
Personal Responsibility/Toxic Individualism
“My grandparents came to the Lower East Side of NYC around 1902, lived in substandard housing, began at exceptionally low paying jobs, were charged more than the going rate for necessities — and worked hard, saved, moved out and moved up! If minorities did what my grandparents did: form and participate in neighborhood associations where they learned English, as well as how to navigate in the system, and how to improve themselves, then they wouldn’t be ‘prey’ for so-called predators.” (74-year old moderate White male, AZ)
Perhaps the most widely known American narrative is that of personal responsibility — the idea that we are all in control of our own destinies, and that anyone and everyone in America can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” When people find themselves in economic precarity, it must be because of something they did wrong. They must have made bad decisions and poor choices, and never learned how to save and budget. In other words, it’s your fault you are poor, and if we can change your behavior, you can be “fixed.”
This narrative rears its ugly head in many iterations across sectors. In jobs and workforce conversations this often shows up as “skills gap” or a lack of “soft skills”– aka if only “certain people” had better behavior, or we just need to “upskill” folks looking for work and all will be well. In racial wealth inequity work it often shows up in our near-obsession with teaching financial literacy or financial coaching as a solution to the problem. Never mind that the typical white household owns 41 times more wealth than the typical Black household and 22 times more than the typical Latinx household, that unemployment rates are consistently double for Black people than the rest of the population, that women of color are funneled into low paying jobs at disproportionate rates, or the myriad of historic and current policies that strip and/or denied wealth from communities of color. This must be something that can be addressed by fixing people, not the systems, rules and policies that play a significant role in producing these wildly unequal outcomes.
The focus on personal responsibility allows us to ignore the deep structural change that needs to occur in order to fix an economy where the people in charge continue to laud profits over people. We need to take the 10,000 foot view on how our economy is structured to realize that it rewards the wealthy and penalizes the poor, rather than honing down on the minutiae of individual behavior. Of course choices matter, but it’s important to realize that choices are being made in the larger context of a rigged system built to benefit the few.
Personhood and Traditional Notions of Work
“I do feel like giving poor people welfare is not a good idea. It does make people lazy. I feel if there is a good work program to get people started they can start being a part of the middle class.” (52-year old liberal African-American woman, FL)
Our country was founded on the puritanical notion of hard work and sacrifice as necessities in life, and as a result, Americans are obsessed with work. We define ourselves through what we do for a living and pride ourselves in constantly being busy and working long hours. “I’m so busy I eat lunch at my desk” is a common badge of honor in American workplaces. Why do we need breaks? Put your head down and work till the job is done. We’re so obsessed with work, we have come to define full personhood and deservedness with those who have full time, paid work.
Layered on top of this is how we as a society define work. Caring for a newborn, child or an ill family member? That’s not “real work.” You’re an artist or musician? Also not real work unless you are getting paid to do it and can sustain yourself. You’re currently in school and are a full-time student? Nah, that’s not work either.
Make no mistake — this limited, narrow definition of work is highly gendered and racist in nature, and has major implications for policy development. This is why the care and service industries — sectors heavily over-represented by women — have the lowest wages and poorest job quality. We don’t value that work in the same way we do other labor, and that shows up in the man-made (quite literally) rules, practices and decisions that shape our economy.
This narrative is also why it has been so hard to pass comprehensive paid leave in the United States. Or why expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to students or to people who do not have some kind of traditional job has been so difficult. It’s also why we have seen an uptake of work requirements tacked on to public assistance programs. You want help from the government? You have to earn it through work, regardless of your ability to do so. We won’t provide you with childcare or transportation assistance to make it so you can actually go to work — you just need to figure it out.
We see people who aren’t working as juvenile, undisciplined, less deserving and as if there is something morally wrong with them. It’s no wonder we have such a hard time adequately supporting the formerly incarcerated who face huge barriers to finding steady employment. In a deeply twisted way, we don’t really think they deserve our help because they can’t find work.
“We talking about minority neighborhoods? How do you overcome a culture that glorifies victimization, oppression, and non-education?” (46-year old conservative white woman, KY)
The recent 1619 project beautifully articulated how anti-Blackness in particular has been a constant underpinning to all of our structures and institutions. We as a society have built an economy on the backs of Black labor and not only do we not acknowledge that, we’ve also created systems, rules and policies that actively harm Black people. This founding notion that Black people are less human than white people, that they are liars, cheats and morally bankrupt negatively impacts all people of color and low-income white people as well.
We can no longer say that notions of anti-Blackness just reside with a small minority of people in our society. This is not just “the deplorables.” A recent study found that 39% of white Republicans and 33% of white Democrats believe that Black people are less evolved than white people. This is why we have such punitive, patronizing welfare policies that completely strip dignity and humanity from people who are in dire straits. It explains why we are so quick to believe the welfare queen myth — yes, Black people must be cheating the system because racist thinking makes us convince ourselves that they are fundamentally immoral. We’ve also created a highly patronizing, racist public child support system based on the flawed thinking that Black men don’t want to be fathers, even though studies show Black fathers are actually more involved in their children’s lives than white fathers.
Passing policies that provide for the public good is increasingly difficult because fundamentally, we do not want to help Black people. Researchers in our study would start by asking a question like, “What do you think of providing childcare for everyone?” Respondents would begin by saying it’s a good idea and without prompt, the conversation would often turn to — “Wait, are we talking about giving this to all people? You know some of those minorities really don’t know how to take care of their kids and they may take advantage…” Even our Democratic politicians revert to anti-black, racist stereotypes as witnessed in the Democratic Presidential debates when Biden blamed Black parents for not knowing how to take care of their children when asked about racial inequities in our public schools. It was a cheap shot, mired in neoliberalism, which works to uphold the status quo versus creating systemic change.
Where We Go From Here
Our deepest lesson from this work has been that entrenched narratives matter when doing policy work. Policy advocates must engage in narrative change work in order to create the political and public will to pass bold policy. Without paying attention to narratives around anti-Blackness, strict definitions of work, and personal responsibility, it will be difficult to engage in the type of change we need to create a truly inclusive and just society. Progressive narrative and policy work should include:
Expanding Our Definition and Understanding of Work: Advocates must acknowledge that our narrow definition of work is based on racist and sexist thinking. Naming that we undervalue work traditionally done by women and people of color and understanding that we tie work to full personhood is the first step. We also need to help build a more robust collective understanding of work that embraces and values care and domestic work, as well as arts and culture work. We also must be careful in ensuring we ourselves as advocates do not perpetuate a message that enforces a narrative that paid work equals personhood and value through the policies we embrace and push forward.
Focus on Systemic Change, Not Individual Behavior: Now more than ever we must engage in efforts that address large scale systemic change that gets to the root causes of problems. A progressive narrative and policy agenda embraces talking about systemic changes in a non-wonky way that resonates with everyday people, and activates radical imagination and thinking that moves beyond tinkering around the edges in policy reform. We can acknowledge that some immediate needs can be addressed through reforming current systems and work toward larger institutional change at the same time. The most important element is letting go of practices and policies that place blame on individuals without looking at the larger systems people are forced to interact with. Conversations about economic security can no longer focus solely on financial coaching and savings, workforce conversations must move beyond “upskilling” people. Let’s think bigger and bolder, and acknowledge how systems impact behavior and outcomes.
Name Anti-Blackness as a Destructive Force that Impacts all People and Center Blackness: We can no longer shy away from naming the role that racism — specifically anti-Blackness — plays in our policy development and implementation. If we don’t name anti-Blackness specifically, and talk about the ways anti-Blackness intersects with sexism and xenophobia, we will never create the correct solutions to the deep-seated problems we face today.
Over the last three months we have been crafting a Centering Blackness framework as a policy development and organizational tool to address the far-reaching effects of anti-Blackness which we will be releasing in early 2020. More than theoretical, it will be a framework that informs an intentional, strategic approach to working toward economic liberation for Black people, which in turn will lift up everyone. We view it as the lens through which people will be able to identify the interactive effects of discrimination, subjugation, and disempowerment on the lives of Black people, and how they are baked into our policies, practices, and institutions and impact all of us. Simply put, Centering Blackness recognizes the uniqueness of the Black experience and puts it at the core of our vision of racial justice and healing.
Promising work around Centering Blackness already exists, such as the phenomenal Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which centers the needs and experiences of extremely low-income Black women-headed households in a guaranteed income pilot. Last month we launched The Black Thought Project, which transforms public and private spaces into sanctuaries for the expression of Black thought. There is also the incredible work happening at The Black Futures Lab and Black Voters Matter, working to build Black political and voting power.
These are just a few examples of how organizations are stepping up to Center Blackness in their work and seeing it as a pathway to liberation for everyone. We can all stand to learn from this incredible work and not shy away from addressing race head-on by centering and honoring Black voices, dreams and joy.
We are in an incredible time where it’s popular for politicians and policymakers to be thinking and talking about bold, transformative policies. We as a society are hungry for things to be different, as we are seeing that the way things are actually don’t benefit most of us. Yet, it will take more than policy to get us to a society where everyone is truly free and equal. We must partake in some bold truth telling and narrative change efforts to build both the political and public will to pass the policies we need to do better for all Americans. It’s great policymakers are talking about big ideas, but to truly shift the narrative and create meaningful change we must push our leaders and ourselves to recognize the inequity inherent within our current systems, and ensure that future policy and programs take into account a history of racial and gender injustice, Centers Blackness, and values people outside of the amount on their paychecks.