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Language and stories are powerful.
They shape our view of the world’s economic systems,
the people in them and the policies we support.
Language and stories are powerful.
They shape our view of the world’s economic systems, the people in them and the policies we support.
Read the report
The stories we’re currently told about how the rich got rich, why the poor stay poor, and why people can’t “move up” place the blame on individuals instead of systems. This creates a vast network of oppression, propping up business as usual and allowing the rich to remain rich, while others suffer.

These worksheets will help strategists apply what we learned through this project and generate their own research-informed strategies and narratives.

In this report, we’ve collected insights from our research to identify the harmful narratives perpetuated by well-meaning organizations. We focused our attention on the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to explore how we tell stories about poverty and wealth—and where we can do better.

BROKE is an opportunity for each of us to examine the stories we tell about poverty and wealth, and to work together to build new narratives rooted in the wisdom of lived experience, narrative power, organizing for economic justice, and social science.

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
Ursula Le Guin
What is
Broke logo
?

BROKE is an opportunity for each of us to examine the stories we tell about poverty and wealth, and to work together to build new narratives rooted in the wisdom of lived experience, narrative power, organizing for economic justice, and social science. The insights from BROKE help us understand where and how we can grow and transform as a community of activists, communicators, storytellers, and strategists dedicated to building a free and just world in which all people can live authentic lives with dignity.

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Assorted photos of protesting workers in a dairy, a farmworker in a field, and a houseless man being spoken to by aid workers
“Everything we believe comes from stories we’ve been told.”
Heather McGhee
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The History
How did we get here? A brief timeline of the narratives, policies, and events that have created poverty and wealth.
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1350-1650

Cooperation on the Commons

After the Plague, both a labor shortage and a shortage of soldiers to enforce feudalism gave peasants the power to refuse rent and services to feudal lords. Peasants instead formed collaborative, egalitarian, self-sustaining communities in which they shared the abundance of the commons (forests, meadows, fields, rivers, etc.).

Narratives

  • Interdependence
  • Reciprocity
  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Care
  • Solidarity
  • Mutual Aid

Pre-Colonization/Pre-Capitalism: Gift Economies

Many Indigenous communities practiced gift economies. They didn't have a word for poverty--the closest thing was "to be without family."

"In a gift economy, wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away. In fact, status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds which enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is “we” rather than “I,” as all flourishing is mutual."

- Robin Wall Kimmerer

NARRATIVE

Patriarchy

Patriarchy holds that some people are superior to others, and entitled to dominate them. It is both an ideology–a set of ideas presenting themselves as natural–and a political-social system.

Originally, patriarchy insisted that “males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” - bell hooks

Patriarchy quickly expanded to have no gender. Anyone could draw an “us” and a “them,” and choose to dominate, exploit, and oppress.

"Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old."

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Enclosure of the Commons

The European ruling class violently enclosed the commons, converting public lands into private property. This enriched landowners and created a vast population of landless people whose only means to survive became to sell their labor."Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old."

NARRATIVE

White Supremacy

White supremacy is an ideology holding that race is real (rather than made-up), and that white people are superior and entitled to dominate all other people.

The white ruling class invented white supremacy both to justify the racialized violence that went into their wealth accumulation, and to prevent cross-race solidarity among exploited classes. It “has evolved into a totalizing system – a toxic sea in which we all swim.” - Loretta Ross

Racism is the enforcement arm of white supremacy. “Racism’s primary function is to divide the exploited, producing hierarchies of privilege and redirecting anger away from employers, and the capitalist class more broadly, toward other social groups, who are seen as competitors and threats instead of potential comrades.” - Astra Taylor & Leah Hunt-Hendrix

1400s-Present

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Colonialism & Imperialism

European companies and armies invade Africa, Asia, and the Americas to extract wealth, commiting genocide and land theft.

1619-1865

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Slavery

1600s

NARRATIVE

Predestination

Predestination was the Puritans' belief that God chooses some people–“the Elect”--to be saved, and the rest to be damned. Economic success was a sign that God had chosen you as one of the Elect. Economic misfortune was a sign that He had not.

In this way, we get narratives of poverty as justified (even divinely ordained), and of the “undeserving poor”--people who do not deserve sympathy because they brought poverty on themselves through moral failure.

NARRATIVE

Protestant Work Ethic

Aiming to prove that they were among the Elect, Protestants practiced hard work and self-denial, which led to wealth accumulation. The Protestant work ethic valued work for its own sake rather than for its results, and replaced the Catholic belief that one should only acquire as much wealth as needed to live well.

Narratives of work and wealth as morally good persist to this day.

1600s

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

U.S. Constitution allows only male landowners to vote, preserves slavery

NARRATIVE

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny is the ideology that white Americans were inherently superior to Native people and destined by God to settle the entire continent of North America. White Americans used Manifest Destiny to justify the forced removal and violent extermination of Native people.

1850s-1860s

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Homestead Acts

Alongside the violent campaign to remove Native people from their homelands, the U.S. government uses a series of Homestead Acts to give away the stolen land to American settlers. The Oregon Donation Land Claim Act restricts land grants to whites only.

1862

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Reparations for Former Enslavers

The District of Columbia Emancipation Act paid former enslavers reparations of up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.

1882

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Chinese Exclusion Act

1870s-1900

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

1st Gilded Age

An era marked by extreme wealth inequality and corresponding social turmoil.

1929-1939

Great Depression

narrative

Individualism and the Bootstraps / Meritocracy Myth

Individualism emphasizes the needs, desires, and moral worth of the individual over those of the group and over relationships.

The bootstraps myth, also known as meritocracy, says an individual can lift themselves up the social and economic ladder through individual effort, hard work, and personal responsibility–without the help of government. A self-made man.

These narratives blame individuals for their failures and credit them for their successes.

In reality, thousands of government policies–in employment, pay, education, housing, banking, law enforcement, the courts, healthcare, and other institutions–operate every day to largely determine people’s life outcomes.

narrative

The American Dream

“That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
James Truslow Adams
1932

Highlander Folk School for movement organizing founded

1933-1939

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

New Deal

The New Deal creates jobs programs, Social Security, and other anti-poverty programs. Social Security excludes domestic and agricultural workers, and Congress insists New Deal programs be administered at the local level, leading to the disproportionate exclusion of Black, Mexican-American, and Asian-American people.

1944

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

GI Bill

The GI Bill pays for college and offers low-interest home loans to veterans. But many universities refuse to enroll Black people, and many banks refuse to loan to Black people, especially for homes in white neighborhoods. White vets are able to build wealth using GI Bill benefits, while many Black vets are not.

1951

Milton Friedman publishes "Neoliberalism And Its Prospects"

1964

President Johnson Declares War on Poverty

President Lyndon B. Johnson squatting down to talk with a man on his front porch
1965

Grape boycott led by Dolores Huerta and César Chávez wins labor rights for farm workers

1966

National Welfare Rights Organization founded

1964 & 1965

Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act

1968

Poor People's March on Washington

1968 photo of the crowd of protestors at the Poor People's March on Washington
1970s - 1980s

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Deregulation of Core Industries

1971

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Nixon vetoes national childcare bill

GIF of Richard Nixon talking on television
1976

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Hyde Amendment strips abortion coverage out of Medicaid

Reproductive justice is economic justice. Failing to recognize child care as a public good and placing 100% of the costs on families prevents parents–disproportionately mothers–from accessing the education or training they need to advance in their career, or keeps them out of the workforce altogether.

And a person who wants to end a pregnancy but is denied is more likely to fall into poverty than one who got an abortion.

1980

The movie 9 to 5 tops box offices, highlighting the discrimination and harrassment faced by white women in office settings.

1980s - Present

NARRATIVE

Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism holds that the free market can solve problems the government can't. It redefines citizens as consumers and prizes privatization, deregulation, and individual freedom. Neoliberalism has led to massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, and the privatization of public services such as energy, water, transportation, healthcare, education, and prisons. Corporations now run these, and charge rents either to people or to government for their use.

2nd Gilded Age

An era marked by extreme wealth inequality and corresponding social turmoil.

NARRATIVE

The Welfare Queen

Pushed by President Ronald Reagan, the Welfare Queen is a narrative that paints recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) as lazy, greedy, self-indulgent, fraudulent--and Black and female.

1991

POLICY THAT ADDRESSED POVERTY

Americans with Disabilities Act

1994

POLICY THAT created poverty/wealth

NAFTA signed by U.S., Mexico, and Canada

Narrative

Personal Responsibility

Rooted in narratives of individualism and meritocracy, the personal responsibility narrative erases the impact of systems and focuses instead on an individual’s personal choices and actions as the explanation for their life outcomes. This narrative is used to dismantle the U.S. social safety net by claiming that people don’t need supports, they just need to work hard.

1996

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Welfare Reform

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) ended the only cash entitlement program for poor U.S. families with children–Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)--and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF only offers time-limited cash assistance and requires "able-bodied recipients" to participate in work-related activities, such as looking for work.

2001 - 2003

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Bush Administration Tax Cuts

2008

Great Recession

2009

POLICY THAT addressed POVERTY

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

2001 - 2003

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Citizens United lifts limits on campaign contributions made by corporations

POLICY THAT ADDRESSED POVERTY

Affordable Care Act

“Corporations are people, my friend.”
U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, 2012

Narrative

Solidarity

“The idea of solidarity describes the ways in which we are bound together and how we can act, in concert, to change our circumstances. It is a form of reciprocity rooted in the acknowledgment that our lives are intertwined.Unlike identity, solidarity is not something you have, it is something you do—a set of actions taken toward a common goal.

A solidarity aiming at transformational change demands we not just recognize and sympathize with the plight of others but also join them as equals, reaching across differences without erasing them. Solidarity in its sublime form shatters the boundaries of identity, connecting us to others even when we are not the same.

Solidarity both produces community and is rooted in it, and is thus simultaneously a means and an end.”

- Astra Taylor & Leah Hunt-Hendrix

2011

Occupy Wall Street

2012

Fight for $15 founded

Protestor at Occupy Wall Street holding a sign asking "How much debt do you have?"
2013

Black Lives Matter Global Movement founded

2017

POLICY THAT CREATED POVERTY/WEALTH

Trump Administration Tax Cut

2020 - Present

POLICY THAT created POVERTY/wealth

State Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

POLICY THAT created POVERTY/wealth

Child Tax Credit expanded and payments begin in July 2021 before stopping in January 2022

NARRATIVE

Mutual Aid

Mutual aid is a solidarity-based practice of giving and receiving–food or time or labor–within a community. Organizers and volunteers operate mutual-aid groups to respond to unmet needs. Mutual-aid systems hold that everyone has something to contribute, and everyone has something they need. Historically, mutual-aid networks have sprung up mostly in communities that the state has chosen not to help. Examples include the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries shelter for homeless trans youth, or the Black Panther Party free-breakfast program.

- Paraphrased from The Cut and The New Yorker

How did we get here? A brief timeline of the narratives, policies, and events that have created poverty and wealth.
swipe or use the arrows below to navigate the timeline
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