Can you explain what your work involves?
My main work at the Institute for Policy Studies is to support social movements that are working to reverse the extreme inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity. This includes working with activist partners, co-editing the web site Inequality.org, and coauthoring reports on the racial wealth divide, top heavy philanthropy, the disruptive impact of luxury real estate, and the problem of hidden wealth and extreme inequality.
What was the motivation behind your book Born on Third Base and what is it focused on?
Born on Third Base is really about demystifying advantage, trying to explain the workings of the multi-generational nature of inequality. I grew up in the richest 1 percent and share my own experience alongside what I’ve learned about the narratives that hold inequality in place. I’ve got a pretty good list of the 101-plus ways that intergenerational advantage works.
My experience campaigning around tax fairness and addressing poverty has reinforced why this work is important. There is, for example, a fair amount of amnesia when it comes to people remembering how they got to where they are. White people forget about government funded programs that helped build white wealth after World War Two – and thwarted wealth-building by people of color. Business owners forget about family help that may have been essential to their own success narrative.
In Born on Third Base I lift up the stories of people who society would view as wealthy and successful – and amplify the part of their stories where they disclose the family and government help that made their situation possible. I call these the “I Didn’t Do It Alone” stories. It is an attempt to replace the destructive myth with a more accurate narrative of wealth-creation.
What in your view is the dominant narrative around poverty and poorer people in America? How does it differ from the narrative that surrounds the rich?
The dominant narrative about poverty is the mirror image of the dominant narrative justifying great wealth. If I were to summarize it on a bumper sticker it would be, “People are (economically) where they deserve to be.” In other words, people possess wealth because they work hard, take risks, have greater creativity and intelligence – they have greater virtues such as grit, etc. And the shadow corollary to that story: people are poor because of individual deficiencies.
Of course, there are individual differences in effort, skills, etc. And these might account for differentials in rewards. But such relatively minor differences should not be deployed to explain deep and systemic inequalities. The narrative of individual “deservedness” has the effect of taking big systemic causes and individualizing them or personalizing them. The implication is, therefore, to fix poverty we must “fix the individual” or fix the “delivery mechanism” of access to education, services.
Why do these narratives exist?
Without these simplistic narratives, we would have to address the underlying systemic roots of inequality, including historical barriers to ownership, wealth, land. We would have to face the legacy of systemic white supremacy and colonialization on wealth building – and how the past shows up in the wealth accounting of the present. We would have to understand the deep inequality of opportunity and the legacy of trauma and deprivation that weighs down some people more than other.
These narratives serve the interests of powerful elites who are interested in individualizing the causes of structural inequality.
Sometimes I worry that the focus on poverty sometimes keeps the frame of vision and conversation focused on fixing poverty. Whereas a unified narrative of wealth and poverty that explains systems of institutional oppression and wealth extraction leads to a very different set of solutions and interventions.
How do these narratives impact on our understanding of poverty and poorer people?
These narratives confuse people about the nature of poverty and people who are impoverished. A narrative framework is a mental short-cut that allows us to quickly and simplistically explain the world –without having to learn individual stories or face larger systemic challenges. They are sometimes necessary as we go through our days, but can be destructive.
The narratives of deservedness enable the brains of the non-poor to categorize or ignore other people’s experience of material deprivation and social isolation that foster trauma, loss and illness. We do need to listen to one another’s stories –which requires attention, openness, even vulnerability.
How might we be able to shift the narratives around poverty and wealth and why does it matter?
There is great working going on – like Project Twist-It – to tackle the narratives that perpetuate poverty.
Our part of the work has been to focus on the mythology of deservedness that binds the whole narrative together – legitimating wealth and justifying inequality and poverty.
One way we have found to disrupt these stories and myths of deservedness is to supplant them with true stories of how wealthy and “successful” people have gotten help – family and government assistance – that has made their own individual wealth and opportunity possibility. This is really part of the work of the Patriotic Millionaires. We have millionaires talking about the importance of taxpayer-funded investments in their own good fortune and opportunity.
As a campaigner, I think the narrative of deservedness is the big boulder in the road to a more equitable society. We know how to rewire the economy to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. But we lack the political will – and that is because of the narratives that hold us back.
I’m finishing up a book for Routledge with the working title: Disrupting Narratives of Deservedness: Changing the Stories that Justify Economic and Racial Inequality. Hopefully this will add to the work that Project Twist-It is working on.
What other initiatives are you aware of that are highlighting the need to change the narrative?
There’s a project that I’m connected to called Narrative Initiative that was formed by Atlantic Philanthropy and the Ford Foundation to study narrative practice. I’ve also learned a lot from the Center for Story-Based Strategy. Another IPS project, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, is working to change journalism’s view of poverty and low-wage work.
Practicing storytelling has been personally important to me to understanding the power of narrative and counter-narrative. I think it is one of the ways that we can rewire our brains (and open our hearts) to one another’s stories.
My companion and spouse Mary is an amazing storyteller and she brought me along to a lot of “Moth” type events. I even told a story about “born on third base” at a slam called “Story Collider,” sort of a mash up of science geeks and Moth storytellers.
Do you think we might be at a moment of realisation about the narratives on poverty and wealth that could push towards a tipping point for positive change?
Yes. I think the currency of these stories is weakening. Yet they remain incredibly powerful – the stories and narratives that justify inequality. But the more we expose them as fallacies and untrue representations of people’s lives, the less hold they have over our brains.
My personal interest is in getting the “beneficiaries” of our unequal system to expose the myths by telling true stories of help – to lift up the infrastructure of public investments. Those of us who have economic, racial, gender and other forms of advantage need to understand our own personal biographies and the benefits that have accrued to us. Privileged families benefit from parental help, what sociologists call the “intergenerational transmission of advantage.” Through storytelling we can demystify how these work.
For example, why do women retire with significantly lower Social Security benefits, after a lifetime of gender prejudiced earnings? I just read Jessicah Bruder’s terrific book Nomadland, about elders who lose or give up their housing and live in mobile homes and vans and do seasonable as “workampers” at national parks, Amazon warehouses and beet harvests. Many of them are women with monthly social security checks of less than $700. If these women had been paid the same amount over their lifetimes as their male cohorts, they wouldn’t be in the same circumstances.
White people need to tell true stories about homeownership – how government homeownership subsidies between 1945 and 1970 went mostly to whites and put millions of people on the wealth-building train. They, in turn, helped their children advance with help to buy homes – contributing to a huge gap between homeownership rates for whites, Blacks and Latinos.
We can focus on individual remedies to poverty or larger system shifts that will build a more just and equitable economy.