• We are using behavioral science to change false, harmful narratives about poverty and lay the groundwork for more effective social policy that centers agency, dignity, and respect.
  • We envision a future where a new shared narrative about poverty and its drivers removes inequities that prevent people from leading fulfilled lives of their own definition.

Why Focus on Narratives

Humans are meaning-making creatures. Through narratives—collections of stories that share a common set of values and inform a course of action—we are able to process information and make sense of the world around us.

Some of the most deeply held narratives are about poverty: why it exists, why it persists, and what should be done about it. Many of these narratives are based on demonstrably false and outdated tropes and harmful stereotypes, reflecting misconceptions about how people make decisions. These narratives make their way into the public imagination and directly influence how we vote, and in turn how policies are designed and implemented. They also influence how we treat others and how we think about ourselves. When policies and programs are based on false narratives, they’re less effective at addressing poverty, and in some cases, can perpetuate or exacerbate it.

In 2020, ideas42 began applying our understanding of human behavior and decision-making to help shift these false and harmful narratives. Working with partners who bring expertise in narrative change, the nuances of communities’ contexts, and crucial lived experience with the impacts of poverty, our goal is to increase support for social policies and programs that reflect and address poverty’s true root causes. Our collaborations with communities and organizations across the U.S. will allow us to reimagine and rewrite narratives about poverty in order to make more effective public programs possible, and ultimately build a society that truly gives everyone a fair shot at a fulfilled life of their own definition.


Defining False Narratives

We’ve identified five main categories of harmful, false narratives that dominate the public perception of poverty in the United States. Understanding and articulating the false narratives is critical to replacing them with accurate ones.

  • Personal fault: The idea that poverty is the result of bad decisions and that character faults, such as laziness and bad judgment, lead to poverty.
  • Welfare exploitation: The idea that people will always try to game the system for their own advantage, so we have to put measures in place to prevent it.
  • Meritocracy: The idea that the American Dream is alive and well. Through hard work, anyone can escape poverty and achieve success.
  • Fatalism: The idea that poverty will always exist, and it is futile to try to eliminate it.
  • Paternalism: The idea that people living in poverty need help to make decisions, because they lack the knowledge or ability to make good decisions by themselves.

For more context and the research informing these narratives, visit our blog.


A Behavioral Approach to Narrative Change

While the specific contours of our narrative change work is shaped by each project’s partners, stakeholders, and local context, all that we do is guided by our core approach:

Read more about our city-based narrative change work: 

More information on our narrative change work in the cities below is coming soon!

Interested in learning more about our work applying behavioral science to economic justice? Reach out to us at ematos@ideas42.org or on X at @ideas42 to join the conversation.