Compelling Narratives

“Although there is little evidence to support such a claim, welfare is widely believed to engender dependency,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in $2.00 A Day. People hate welfare and distrust welfare recipients. Part of the reason why is because compelling narratives have been developed and routinely deployed to argue that welfare creates dependence, that it weakens the person receiving aid, and creates a cycle where those who are poor lose skills and work ethic, becoming more dependent on a system of support.
“Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” write the authors. Rather than viewing welfare as a system that ensures everyone is able to meet their basic needs or as a system that provides a stable foundation for everyone to live a healthy life, welfare is viewed as a system that ruins the lives of those who receive it by draining their motivation to anything productive with their life. In the United States, a country founded on Protestant ideals where hard work is rewarded with divine riches, the idea of welfare runs against the concepts that have fueled capitalism and our independent spirit.
But the narratives around welfare are often little more than narratives. When it comes to government aid and social support, people are more interested in stories than statistics. A single anecdote about a greedy individual is more powerful than research on economic mobility, the long history of racism in the United States, or randomized controlled trials and natural experiments which show the benefits of social support systems. Research shows that economic mobility is not as simple as hard work and pulling oneself up by bootstraps. The long history of racism in America shows how black ghettos were the result of deliberate racist policies designed to hinder the economic and social advancement of black people. And natural experiments from Oregon regarding Medicaid lotteries show that individuals who receive Medicaid experience less stress and are more willing to engage economically when they are not worried about providing for their healthcare. “Sometimes evidence, however,” write Edin and Shaefer, “doesn’t stand a chance against a compelling narrative.”
When it comes to social support, we want to feel as though we are generous and we want to use charity to signal our wealth and success. Welfare provided through the government does not help us achieve these ends. Additionally, in our own narratives we like to tell ourselves that we are hard working, that we overcame obstacles, and that we are making worthwhile sacrifices for the good our families and communities. Providing welfare through the government to anyone who is below an economic threshold accepts that failure is not due to personal work ethic, challenging the idea that our success is purely a result of how hard we work. It acknowledges that racism has played into the economic outcomes (positive and negative) that we see today, it acknowledges that having a stable footing helps people get ahead, diminishing our personal narratives of overcoming obstacles. The narratives around our own success and the failures of others drive our views and opinions of welfare much more than the evidence of how welfare actually works and impacts the lives of those around us. This is true for the every day citizen on the street and many of the presidents and political leaders throughout our country’s history. These narratives also prevent us today from truly moving forward in a way that supports those who are the poorest among us.

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