I used to not think much about narratives, let alone their role in shaping public opinion and policy. If you had asked me at the start of my poverty-fighting career what narratives were, I would have told you they were simply stories or referenced a quote about “controlling the narrative.” It’s true that I knew that narratives were important (I work in the behavioral sciences after all), but I never understood the centrality of narratives in all that anti-poverty organizations do or are able to accomplish. How if the narrative was right, the thing that we most want to accomplish, solving poverty, could have the political will to happen. They didn’t frame this as “narratives” in social work school when I attended, though they should have.
When I started working more closely with our Economic Justice team at ideas42 using a behavioral science lens to tackle thorny issues that create and maintain poverty and inequality in the United States, the importance of narrative work became more striking. When I would be in conversations with others that I didn’t agree with on social policy, I realized that our beliefs and attitudes were consistently driven by our underlying narratives. Narratives are a lens through which we make sense of the world, including the causes of poverty. Narratives help us conjure responses in debates about fundamental social policy questions, such as:
- What causes poverty?
- Who deserves what type of support?
- What is the role of the government in providing that support?
I realized quickly that narratives provided a way for me to communicate ideas both around why I was doing the work I was doing, as well as how important it was for social change. Now that I have an understanding of common poverty narratives, I see them everywhere. In movies, what is conveyed about structural barriers as causes for poverty, versus individual fault? Overwhelming, as many say in religious circles, “God helps those who help themselves.”
And not surprisingly, political rhetoric, which I will avoid repeating here, is omnipresent in how we think about and talk about poverty. Even in conversations with fellow organizations committed to fighting poverty, I sometimes have to ask – what do you mean by that comment? What are the implications of this position, and what narratives does it relate to? Truthfully, even those committed to fighting poverty can unintentionally reinforce some of the most harmful poverty narratives. It’s something we all need to look out for as an ongoing practice.
Even for me, when I took our new Poverty Associations Quiz, I was surprised that I was grappling with one or two of the statements related to the Fatalism narrative. While I didn’t score high, reading more about that narrative prompted me to reflect on where those beliefs and attitudes might be coming from, and what some of the implications might be in terms of my work.
We want other people to notice poverty narratives and their impact- so we decided to take survey work we’re doing nationwide as a part of Shared Prosperity Catalyst and let other people take it with real-time answers to see where they land. I challenge you to take it honestly – go with your gut – and see what poverty narratives you might hold, and reflect on whether those narratives align with your views on policy and what you’d want for your community.
If relevant, think about the implications of your views on the people you serve. Here’s what you’ll get as a part of taking the Poverty Associations Quiz.
- See what common narratives exist about poverty, and what people across the U.S. believe.
- Read more about what might be driving those narratives, such as demographics and ideological positions.
- Start to understand how important narrative work is to addressing poverty in the U.S.
If this quiz gets a large response, we might consider developing a Poverty Associations Quiz 2.0 that contains many of the community-driven narratives from our work with Shared Prosperity Catalyst.