Humans are hardwired for stories. We think in stories, remember in stories, and organize our experiences in stories. Our brain uses collections of stories, or narratives, to make sense of the onslaught of information we receive every day. Narratives shape our shared sense of history, culture, values, and identities with others. They also influence people’s beliefs and attitudes, having a profound effect on society.

In the United States, there are deep-seated narratives about who deserves what, and why. One of the most pervasive (and false) narratives in American society is that people experiencing poverty have only themselves to blame—that their circumstances are the result of individual choices, rather than flawed social policies and programs that reinforce inequality. These narratives shape the political economy, and as a result, inform misguided policies that exacerbate poverty in the United States rather than alleviate it.

Narratives hold transformative power and can be used to shift the political economy. As Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie shares in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Narratives move people, people move policy, and policy can move us towards a society that is more just, more inclusive, and reflects the realities of the humans living in it.

Our Narrative Change teams put our expertise in behavioral science and evaluation to work supporting and amplifying the many pieces of narrative change work happening on the ground in cities across the United States. In partnership with organizations and community residents, we create campaigns that expose the systemic causes of poverty, and advance community-driven policy solutions that address the true drivers of poverty, all while building a body of research on who holds these narratives, why, and potential solutions to change them.

Our Research: How pervasive are false narratives about poverty? What drives them? And who holds them?

Since 2020, ideas42 has worked alongside nonprofits, academics, service providers, and community members across the U.S. to understand and replace harmful narratives with updated, accurate versions informed by local contexts and behavioral science research.

Over two years, we conducted national surveys with a representative sample of 4,309 respondents. We found four primary categories of harmful narratives:

  • meritocracy: the idea that success is achievable through hard work alone

  • welfare exploitation: the idea that people intentionally abuse the system for their own benefit 

  • paternalism: the idea that people experiencing poverty cannot make good decisions for themselves, and

  • fatalism: the idea that poverty is inevitable and unchangeable. 

These narratives permeate all aspects of American society, cutting across social identities like race, gender, age, and political ideology. Our research showed that when it comes to endorsing harmful narratives, what matters far more than demographics are people’s worldviews and thinking styles. We define worldview as a set of beliefs and attitudes through which a person interprets the world around them, while thinking styles are a characterization of how a person processes information and solves problems.

One worldview and one thinking style in particular matter a lot when it comes to poverty narratives: social dominance orientation, or how much a person favors inequality among social groups, and intuitive thinking, or how much a person relies on instinct and feelings when making decisions. People who score highly on intuitive thinking or social dominance orientation—regardless of socioeconomic status—are more likely to endorse harmful narratives about poverty.

We also found that respondents tended to converge into groups according to their demographic characteristics and which narratives they were most likely to agree with. Through a type of audience segmentation process called latent class analysis, we uncovered four types of audiences: 

  • Curious Change Agents: Lowest endorsement of the harmful narratives (welfare exploitation, meritocracy, paternalism, and fatalism). Highest endorsement of the structural narrative, or the idea that poverty is a result of systemic racism and inequality. 

  • Unengaged Observers: Low endorsement of all the narratives, harmful and structural alike.

  • Paternalistic Fatalists: Higher endorsement of fatalism, paternalism, and structural narratives.

  • Suspicious Meritocrats: Higher endorsement of harmful narratives compared to the structural narrative, particularly of welfare exploitation and meritocracy.

We also analyzed dominant narratives in specific policy ideas, such as guaranteed basic income (regular, unconditional money in the form of fungible cash). A growing body of research (including our own work on cash transfer programs across sub-Saharan Africa) has documented how guaranteed income programs consistently improve health, child welfare, and employment outcomes, and provide crucial stability in periods of financial uncertainty. Yet narrative barriers, and their impact on the political economy, stand in the way of widespread support. In our analysis, we found that 60% of survey respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that a guaranteed income would be good for them and their community. However, when prompted to provide open-ended feedback on guaranteed income programs, respondents shared overwhelmingly negative comments, inflected with false narratives about fraud, employment, and motivation.

Overall, this illustrates an intriguing paradox. People support a guaranteed income for themselves and their communities but oppose the concept of a general guaranteed income program. Stereotypes and misperceptions about those receiving cash benefits keep them from supporting guaranteed basic income (GBI) policy.

We feel it is urgent to use the evidence from our research on the drivers of false narratives and the collective power of narrative change practitioners to tell a different story and reimagine how we talk about, think about, and act on poverty.

Co-creating narrative change campaigns using behavioral science and measuring impact

This research informed how we’re seeking to change narratives, ultimately leading to better policies. Our  Narrative Change teams at ideas42 take a multi-pronged approach:

Changing dominant narratives in communities through cultural interventions

  • In New York City, we are working alongside a group of 10 Bronx residents (dubbed the “Bronx Ideators” and three community leaders and entrepreneurs to build a campaign that showcases talent, innovation, and culture in the Bronx. In 2023, we launched the first “Boogie Down for Change Crawl”: a full-day tour of the Bronx guiding participants to experience local businesses and unique Bronx spaces. In 2024, we are expanding the crawl to reach new neighborhoods and new spaces in the Bronx using social media to scale. We are also developing an interactive digital game that leverages perspective-taking and empathy-building to convey the message that poverty is not the result of individual failure.
  • In Memphis, we worked with five local organizations to design and host a multi-pronged cultural intervention centered on storytelling and uplifting Memphis storytellers. Through a series of workshops, ten community storytellers—most of them first-time performers—developed and shared a true personal story at two events, called “The Stories We Tell.” The events also featured music, dancing, interfaith rituals, facilitated conversations, and the unveiling of murals depicting themes and symbols from the stories. We are continuing to work alongside these organizations to build a narrative change curriculum to strengthen narrative practice in Memphis and beyond. 

Changing narratives surrounding social policy

We’re focusing on how poverty narratives intersect with policies like GBI. We’ll partner with organizations advancing specific policies, and launch narrative change campaigns that target policymakers, the media, and the general public to shift the political economy for change.

  • We are working with the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity (GRO) Fund to better understand the attitudes and beliefs that keep people in Atlanta from supporting GBI pilots. We will investigate themes of resilience, hard work, and deservedness through qualitative methods. We will also build on a promising early finding that Atlanta audiences are more aware of and attuned to the evidence base for GBI’s effectiveness compared to the national average.
  • In DC, we are working with the Center for Community Resilience (CCR) at the George Washington University, TRIGGER Project and community members to research public narratives about gun violence and create a multimedia narrative change campaign that highlights the root causes of violence and centers stories from community members. 

Strengthening organizations’ capacity to apply a narrative change lens to work with service providers and communities

We’re continuing to build capacity directly with partners in Detroit, Memphis, and DC on applying a narrative change lens to their advocacy work.

  • In Detroit, we partnered with human service provider organizations to understand how staff members understand and relate to poverty. Frontline staff members who provide crucial services to people experiencing poverty are more likely to hold a nuanced view of the drivers and symptoms of poverty, but no one is immune to harmful narratives. We designed a series of action-oriented, guided conversations and an accompanying workbook called “Trusting Choice, Seeing Change” which helped staff members hold more nuance, empathy, and understanding towards the clients they work with.
  • In DC and Memphis, we are designing a narrative change curriculum for partners and community members to weave in new, accurate narratives into their everyday programs, and working directly with organizations to develop simple, behaviorally informed tools to correct false and harmful narratives. 

Measuring narrative change and deepening the application of behavioral science

  • We continue to leverage our behavioral science and research expertise to find innovative ways to deepen our understanding of narratives, their power, and how to change them. We are applying classification methods to the multi-dimensional data from our national survey of narrative beliefs to identify segments of the population with distinct profiles of poverty narratives. These population segments allow us to better understand potential audiences of our narrative change campaigns and, critically, support better targeting of those campaigns.
  • We are also using natural language processing to identify poverty narratives in the media across the political spectrum, and are finding that although left- and right-leaning sources discuss them in very different ways, both sides use and perpetuate harmful poverty narratives. Advanced analysis methods like classification and natural language processing help us gain a more holistic, nuanced understanding of people's beliefs and environment, and we plan to continue employing such approaches to uncover how narratives are shaping and are shaped by society.

The stories we tell ourselves, or are told, shape our experience in the world, how our society is formed, and how societal problems are solved (or perpetuated). Stories are, at their heart, a function of human behavior. Through our first four years investigating narratives around poverty in the United States, and starting to sketch out plans to help change them, it’s become clear that to truly end poverty and inequality, we must use our understanding of human behavior, and of narratives, to first shift the political economy. The multi-pronged approach we’re taking in 2024 and beyond, reflects this understanding. Our ambitious narrative change work, in partnership with communities, is how we achieve lasting impact at scale.

Learn more about our ongoing narrative change initiatives in cities across the U.S. and contact us at to get involved. You can also directly support our work to make more effective public programs possible by making a contribution to ideas42