By: Diane Cornman-Levy
“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
At a campaign rally in 1976, Ronald Reagan spoke those very words and introduced the Welfare Queen into the public conversation on poverty. The narrative of the fore mentioned woman became a favorite example of welfare abuse at the expense of working Americans. Welfare Queen became a national archetype and Reagan’s administration flourished on a policy of regulating and reducing welfare. Since 1976, the narrative of the myth of the welfare queen has been perpetrated by anti-welfare coalitions and has caused prejudice against the poor that persists to this day, consequently shaping policies that have made it more difficult for poor women to access resources.
By 1989 and the end of Reagan’s second term, well over half of Americans believed that welfare rewarded the lazy and discouraged the poor from trying to find work. In 1996, Democratic president Bill Clinton announced a massive overhaul of the welfare system, based on the concept of welfare only for the worthy. Fueled by fear of the Welfare Queen narrative, this reform denied childcare to parents with prior drug or felony convictions, set work requirements in order to receive federal aid, and set sanctions for noncompliance. These changes were justified solely by the unwarranted fear of welfare abuse.
Out of this one narrative evolved a dominant and damaging narrative about poor women, and especially poor women of color: they are not worthy and are undeserving of resources and opportunities. They have no one to blame but themselves. Racist assumptions about black laziness and deception were built into the welfare system. For example, states had the right to restrict access to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, a move meant to specifically target African Americans. The fear was that black citizens (and particularly parents) would abuse the system to avoid working, despite the fact that 80% of ADC participants at that time were white.
The Power of Narratives
Narratives which are commonly held ideas about people and society, coalesce as the result of the languages, stories and messages we hear every day from many different sources. They are powerful because they have the potential to influence the beliefs and behaviors of individuals and shape institutional practices. For the past four years the narrative of “fake news” by President Trump has undermined the legitimacy and importance of journalism and data-driven news. His narrative is now the narrative of his more than 70 million supporters.
Narratives often play an important role in entrenching inequities. For example, they can perpetuate harmful beliefs about a particular group of people as well as inaccurately characterize the root causes of social issues. For years we have heard narratives of how Black people are dangerous, violent and cannot be trusted which has been used to justify police brutality against them. At the same time, narratives have been used to uphold our dominant system of capitalism that rests on the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates White people as a group. These narratives give White people the benefit of the doubt and often allow them to abuse their power without consequences. We just witnessed the power of the white supremacy narrative when Trump supporters violently attacked the Capital in an attempt to overturn the election, and the police did nothing to stop them. This is in stark contrast to how the police responded to the peaceful BLM demonstrators who were tear gassed so that President Trump could have a photo of himself holding the bible in front of a church.
Narrative Change and Systems-Level Work
Changing the narrative is often a vital component of social justice work. Narrative change is the process of constructing and promoting narratives that challenge existing ones to drive social change. It is the effort to tell a better story, move hearts and minds, and drive lasting policy and culture change. Fundamentally, narrative change is about shifting the way people think, creating new frames for the way they interpret and respond to the things they see, hear and experience. Building and promoting new narratives about an issue can challenge dominant paradigms, reframe existing understandings of social problems, and offer new solutions.
It is also about shifting narrative power. For the past 400 years, narratives about our history, current events, and different populations have been predominantly designed and told by White affluent men. They still dominate all platforms of news media. How stories are framed, the language and images that are used, and how context is often omitted in telling stories deeply shapes our thinking and understanding of the world. Those who create and tell the stories have the power.
At WOMEN’S WAY, we are working to shift narratives about women who experience economic hardship. Specifically, we are changing who gets to tell stories, and at a deeper level, who gets to claim authority, define issues, and assign meaning to those issues.
In the fall of 2017, WOMEN’S WAY launched the Women’s Economic Security Initiative (WESI), a long-term, systems-level collaborative initiative centered around the shared vision that all women in the Philadelphia region attain financial well-being for themselves and their families. With the understanding that no one organization or sector alone can solve this deep-rooted issue, WESI brings together government, nonprofits, philanthropy, business, and women with the lived experience of economic insecurity around a common agenda and aligned activities.
Central to our theory of change is narrative change, specifically changing personal and public narratives about women and economic insecurity from ones that stigmatize and blame women to ones that create a transformative awareness that racial and gender disparities are due to foundational and systemic discrimination and policies. Thanks to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge, WESI is launching the Change the Narrative Fellowship Program on January 13, 2021 that’s purpose is to change the predominant narrative by using a women-led, bottom-up, intersectional approach that focuses on the voices and stories of diverse women with lived experiences of poverty. The fellowship will train and empower 10 women with the lived experience of economic insecurity to share their personal stories through professional-level audio, visual, and print production. The purpose of the program will be to generate awareness of racial and gender inequities in economic opportunity and spur actions among the public and private sectors that improve economic security in the Philadelphia region. Ultimately, fellows’ stories will be widely promoted and easily accessible through partner organizations, and fellows will convene with journalists, policymakers, and philanthropists to identify actions to improve economic security of women and their families.
Centering the voices of women with lived experiences not only changes predominant narratives, but also shifts power to those impacted by the issues and dismantles the thinking and biases of White Supremacy. It is time for journalists, policymakers, and philanthropists to pass the microphone to women with lived experiences and actively listen and learn from their stories. When the work is shaped by the connection between the person who has the microphone or the pen and the person who has a story to tell, it leads to lasting systems change.
For more information about the Change the Narrative Fellowship Program, please visit our website at www.womensway.org.