Racial Narratives and Basic Income, feat. Anne Price

The history of our social safety net, government benefits, and anti-poverty programs is inextricably tied to race. Racial narratives are embedded in the public discourse around these programs, and in many cases, into the laws themselves. The basic income discussion in the U.S. must inevitably include a conversation about race and racial narratives. Anne Price, who studies race and public policy as President of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, joins the podcast to discuss these issues and how they relate to basic income.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello. Welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: One crucial issue around the social safety net and how we’re approaching lifting people up and taking care of the most vulnerable disenfranchised people in our society is race and racial inequalities and inequities. In this episode, we delve into some of those and how basic income relates.

Jim: A big part of race is understanding what are the underlying narratives that are at play in our society that actually drive a lot of people’s views on things. To really delve into that, we invited on Anne Price, who’s the president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development to talk about her work and her view on these underlying narratives, race, and basic income itself. I had a chance to sit down with Anne and talk to her about all of this stuff.

Owen: Here’s Jim’s conversation with Anne Price.

Jim: To start with, could you just tell us about what work the Insight Center does?

Anne: Sure. The Insight Center has been around since 1969. We focus on uncovering the hidden truth around economic security through research, through advocacy. A lot of our work is really zooming in on racial and economic exclusion.

Jim: I know from many of our past conversations, a lot of your work focuses on narrative, cultural narrative. That’s something that often, when people talk about policy, just is not even part of the conversation. People think of that in a different bucket really. Can you say a bit more about what work you do on narrative and how that actually does tie in to policy and policy-making?

Anne: Yes. We’ve been focused on the issue of narratives for about six or seven years. We really got into this work because we began to understand that narrative undergirds policy decision making and enables us to think about how we build public will towards passing the policies that we think will make the most difference. A public narrative really helps bring people together. It reminds us a lot about what our shared values are. It helps us feel the emotion associated with the values and putting those values into action.

Jim: Now, let’s talk about race. When most people think about racism, they’re typically thinking about that happening at the individual level, actions that are showing explicit racial bias, but some of the most pernicious forms of racism today actually extend far beyond that and delve very much into the implicit side and motivations and actions that may not be on their face this traditional obvious sense people have of racism. That, I know connects very deeply to narratives. Can you talk about how those things tie together?

Anne: Sure. When we think about how we’re experiencing racism in this country today, of course, some of it seems to be very explicit. But a lot of what we’re actually seeing in terms of people’s truly lived experiences are embedded in our institutions, in the rules, practices, and cultural norms that define those policies and those institutions. While what we’re seeing on the public face is very explicit, what people experience is somewhat hidden in those rules. Those rules are shaped a great deal by narrative and how we come to think about people’s humanity, for example.

Most recently, in some remarks that were made about people on welfare as being animals, as being scoundrels, those types of narratives then lead to very punitive policies. It’s basically saying that people are not human, so, therefore, they’re not deserving. The narrative of deservedness really undergirds most of our economic policies.

Jim: How does that narrative you’re describing, how does that connect to people’s economic activity? How does it connect to work? How does it connect to participation in the economy?

Anne: I think it’s thread through everything that we do in our in our economy. It totally defines not only how people can move in the world and how, for example, people are seen when they go for a job interview, how they’re looked at in terms of the kinds of jobs they could hold, the kind of services that they received. Even how people start to see themselves once those narratives are repeated. When we think about what we’re experiencing today, it’s very deep seeded. These are narratives that aren’t new. They have been the narratives we’ve been dealing with since our very founding.

Jim: Something you just said, I thought stood out, which was it also affects the way people see themselves. I think often there’s this idea that racial biases is one group looking at the other. It sounds like what you’re saying is actually, no, people can be looking at their own community, and this can affect that perception as well.

Anne: Definitely. Some of the work that we’ve done all over the country in talking to people and working with people who receive services, for example. You start to hear those repeated narratives that really people have a great deal of shame when they have to get help with food stamps, for example. I’ve worked with folks who get child support who say, “I’m not a deadbeat.” That narrative about a deadbeat dad is really embedded in people’s psyche. These aren’t just things that shape policy, they shape how people see themselves.

Jim: Now, moving on to talk a bit more specifically about universal basic income. How does that intersect here? What is the interplay between these narratives that exist out here, how they exist today, how they might exist in the future? And how a policy like basic income compares to other current programs we have today in ways that we’ve approached support programs in the past.

Anne: Well, I think for one thing, when we think about our social safety net, which is to me the most perfect example about embedded narratives. We have really never had narratives in this country that actually respect people’s humanity and dignity, when they are down on their luck and in between jobs or are living in poverty. The issue of deservedness and what a UBI could do to disconnect deservedness from people’s ability to move freely in this country. I think I don’t see another policy doing it, what that policy could do in that space.

I think it could do a lot to help us think about the fact that dignity should have to be earned and could free people to be– have a more of a sense of agency and control over the decisions they need to make for their families.

Jim: Given that there seems to be more and more discussion and interest in basic income, as support grows and as we get closer to enacting some policy program there, I’m curious your thoughts as to what are the things that we need to be looking out for as that moves ahead. Thinking about the issues that have occurred, the problems that have arisen in past programs that many of them ostensibly aiming to support everyone, are there aspects of how universal basic income might be designed or how it might be advocated for that could lead us down an unproductive path?

Anne: Yes, I think a lot about this actually because when we think about a policy like UBI, which is oftentimes spoken as a universal program and is facially neutral, meaning that it shouldn’t have any implications around gender or race. We haven’t had any economic policies in this country that weren’t exclusionary in some form or fashion. Often times when we think about a policy like UBI, we tend to gravitate towards the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, but history tells us otherwise.

We can name policy after policy that with very good intentions the idea that, one, a facially neutral policy seems easier to pass. That we don’t have the political divides and debates, so it seems easier, and it also seems like it’s fair. But we know that the way in which our economy is structured and institutions are structured that that just isn’t the case, that everyone won’t benefit equally. We have to really come to grips with that and understand how do we then begin to build other types of support around other issues in addition to UBI.

Jim: I’m sure many folks are, but for those who aren’t as familiar with how some past programs have, while facially being neutral, have actually not been. Do you have some examples you can share?

Anne: Sure, I mean I think one of the examples that’s been used a lot is talking about the New Deal and even looking at the labor standards that came out of the New Deal, which of course for us seems like such a long time ago, seventy years ago. But we think about what Social Security has done, how important it was for our economy, for older adults. It’s an example of a policy that on its face was neutral, but there were aspects of it that were exclusionary, particularly around domestic workers and agricultural workers, and that excluded largely Blacks and Latinos.

What’s important about that is that that exclusion still exists today. It is not a relic of our past. Basically, those rights have never really been restored, and those same groups are still suffering from basic protections as a result. We’re grappling with historical policies that are still playing out in a way that’s causing unequal outcomes. When we think about another type of economic policy on top of the ones that we have in place now, we have to then begin to say how can we do this differently so that no one is left behind. It’s one of the real goals that we need to have in this work.

Jim: What do you feel like, looking from your perspective on it, is most needed right now in the basic income space?

Anne: I think that we need to really speak to values and a framework. I know that people come to UBI for various reasons. I do think that some of the framing that has been so focused on automation is really crowding out other types of frameworks. I think we have to be open to those other frameworks that are really looking at other types of issues. That we don’t have to think about automation alone in terms of what workers are facing today, in terms of scheduling and hours and contingent work around jobs that pay very low wages.

Those things are still very important to think about: how do we improve non-labor income in this country? What are the mechanisms that are going to help us get there? I think that we need a broader conversation than just the one that’s focused on automation.

Jim: Alright, well, those were all the questions I had. Anything else you’d like to add?

Anne: I think the only thing I’d like to add is the fact that we have an opportunity right now to really push for a bolder, bigger vision of what we want, the society we want to live in. I think speaking from those values is going to be really important for us to move along a policy like a UBI.

Owen: Alright, that was Jim Pugh and Anne Price on the Basic Income Podcast. I think the work that the Insight Center is doing is really important because so many people approach UBI from the automation angle. If we only think of it that way, we might end up only solving for the problems of automation. There are so many other things we need to be thinking about.

Jim: Right, we’ve talked about this before, but to do a redesign of the social contract in the US, we need to make sure that we understand all aspects of the social contract. Part of that is recognizing what is the right solution for changing the nature of work as we expect that may be happening. A lot of it is also looking back at the sometimes very painful lessons that have been learned by different communities and the discrimination that has been inate to the safety net, targeting communities of color is definitely a key area. So if we’re not starting with that when figuring out what we’re trying to build here, we’re probably going to repeat a lot of the issues that we’ve seen in the past.

Owen: Right. We have some pretty key examples from the past. I’d say namely the Earned Income Tax Credit and Social Security for two. They’re both programs we hold up as shining examples of what cash can do, in lifting people up, in holding off poverty. They also have values that come from a white, male-centric universe embedded in them and those are the people that who were most helped by them.

Jim: Right. That’s why it’s important understanding the value that universality brings here. We see so many of these past instances, where there was some degree of exclusion that occurred, that was affecting these minority communities. If we have something that really goes to everyone that’s providing that extra layer of protection against the potential abuse and exclusion that might occur.

Beyond that I think something that’s important to recognize here is, when we’re talking about narratives, oftentimes, when people think about what’s needed to move basic income forward, their mind immediately goes to evidence. Saying that we need to do more pilots, more analyses in order to collect more evidence about what basic income will do. When we’re talking about narrative, an evidence-based argument is probably not going to get us very far. These are these deeply emotional, underlying beliefs that people have. Presenting a rational argument is not likely to change it.

That’s what we need to be thinking about as far as what’s actually required to move basic income forward. What are the things that are actually going to affect the culture? What’s the story-telling? What are the other ways that we might actually be able to shift this really fundamental worldview people have? It’s going to need to go far beyond just data.

Owen: Right. That’s why you hear so many politicians when they’re making a point, they’ll give you one person. They’ll tell you one person’s story. That sticks with you. Whereas, if you say, “Blah, blah program keeps X number of millions of people out of poverty.” That just goes in one ear and out the other. You might think for a moment, “Okay, sounds like a good program,” but you might not remember the name or what it does, but you’ll remember one person’s story.

Jim: Exactly. That’s not to say– oftentimes, having some powerful statistics to incorporate into a story can make it stronger, but you need a story if you’re going to be shifting those beliefs.

Owen: Alright. That will do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts or the service of your choice, and tell your friends. Bring more people into the movement. We’ll see you next week.

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