Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift

The prevalence of sexual assault in the United States, defined broadly to include not only acts of violence, but also sexual harassment and intimidation, has been the subject of media coverage and on the public policy agenda in fits and starts for more than forty years. In the past, scandals have erupted in the military, on campuses, within the priesthood, or involving a very public figure and generated media attention. Sometimes prosecutions or incremental policy reforms follow, and then the problem drops from public view until the next flare-up occurs. In late 2017, the #MeToo Movement suddenly burst onto the national stage and dominated the news cycle for weeks on end. Millions of survivors of sexual violence, not only in the United States but around the globe, took to social media and spoke out, disclosing the harms and trauma they had experienced, and within a short time, hundreds of abusers, most of them men, were toppled from positions of power. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Today, a new movement under the leadership of survivor advocates and activists is growing in size and influence. This increased awareness and activism suggests that this time, the issue may not simply recede into the hidden corners of society where it has traditionally lurked, out of sight and out of mind for people without a direct reference point or experience. This time, a shift in the overarching narrative about sexual violence in America, driven by the survivors themselves, has the potential to bring about real institutional and behavioral change. This case study explores how the #MeToo Movement is shifting long-dominant narratives that have contributed to the societal acceptance of high levels of sexual violence in this country.

METHODOLOGY

INTERVIEWEES
  • Denise Beek, Chief Communications Officer, “me too”
  • Moira O’Neil, PhD, Vice President of Research and Interpretation, FrameWorks Institute
  • Kenyora Parham, Executive Director, End Rape on Campus Nancy Parrish, Founder and CEO, Protect Our Defenders
  • Juhu Thukral, Founder + Principal, Apsara Projects LLC
  • Brooke Foucault Welles, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Northeastern University
  • Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center
OTHER SOURCES CONSULTED
  • Maria Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault. Northeastern University Press, 2000
  • Ryan J. Gallagher, Elizabeth Stowell, Andrea G. Parker, and Brooke F. Welles. Reclaiming Stigmatized Narratives: The Networked Disclosure Landscape of #metoo. SocArXiv. May 24, 2019
  • Carly Gieseler, The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar. Bowman & Littlefield, 2019
  • Kate Harding, Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It. Perseus Books Group, 2015
  • Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. The MIT Press, 2020
  • Moira O’Neil and Pamela Morgan, American Perceptions of Sexual Violence. FrameWorks Institute, 2010
  • Katie Thomson, “Social Media Activism and the #MeToo Movement,” Medium, June 12, 2018
MEDIA AND SOCAL MEDIA RESEARCH

To identify media trends, we developed a series of search terms and used the LexisNexis database, which provides access to more than 40,000 sources, including up-to-date and archived news. For social media trends, we utilized the social listening tool Brandwatch, a leading social media analytics software that aggregates publicly available social media data.

THE SIZE OF THE PROBLEM

The fact that the prevalence of sexual assault in the United States is high is not open to controversy. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, the rate of rape increased by 15 percent between 2014 and 2018.[2] Since rape is a crime that is greatly underreported, the actual numbers are likely much higher.

The numbers from institutions that are required by law to collect such data are also sobering. In the military, 6.2 percent of active-duty women reported a violent sexual assault in 2018, and 24.2 percent reported an experience of sexual harassment. Again, the actual numbers are much higher. The military estimates that only one out of every three servicewomen who experience sexual assault files a report.[3] On college campuses, a 2019 survey of more than 181,000 students found that one in four undergraduate women from 33 large universities had experienced sexual assault while they were students.[4] Compounding the problem is the fact that so few individuals are held accountable for their actions. According to World Population Review, only 9 percent of rapists in the United States get prosecuted and only 3 percent of rapists will spend a day in prison. Of rapists in the United States, 97 percent walk free.[5]

Sexual harassment in the workplace is also extremely common in the United States. Surveys show that approximately 30 percent of women have experienced such harassment.[6] In an ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted Oct. 12–15, 2017, after the Weinstein revelations became public but before #MeToo, 54 percent of women said they had received unwanted sexual advances from a man that they felt were inappropriate whether or not those advances were work-related; 30 percent said this had happened to them at work.[7] In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted Nov. 13–15, 2017, 35 percent of women said they have personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse from someone in the workplace.[8]

BACKGROUND: THE ANTI-RAPE MOVEMENT OF THE 1970S

The rise of the women’s movement in the mid-1960s put sexual violence on the public policy agenda for the first time. Until feminists proclaimed that “the personal is political,” any public discussion of rape and other forms of sexual assault was considered taboo, hidden behind a veil of secrecy, shame, and myth. Susan Brownmiller, whose groundbreaking 1975 book Against Our Will would articulate a feminist analysis of rape, admitted that like many other women of that era, she had perceived it as “a sex crime, a product of a diseased, deranged mind” or as a false charge made by a white woman against a Black man. She wrote that she once believed women in the movement “had nothing in common with rape victims.”

That view began to change with the proliferation of consciousness-raising groups throughout the country. In these intimate and safe settings, women began to reveal experiences from their own lives that they had long kept hidden because of fear and shame. Through this process they discovered that problems they thought were individual actually reflected common conditions faced by all women—including unwanted sexual contact. In January 1971, the New York Radical Feminists held the first public event in the United States at which women spoke about their experiences of being raped. The speak-out was held in a small church in midtown Manhattan. With more than 300 women in attendance, forty spoke about their assault both at the hands of the rapist and then again at the hands of the justice system. The result of this event was the birth of the anti-rape movement and a challenge to the “rape myths” that were embedded in American culture.

ANTI-RAPE IDEOLOGY 

Throughout the decade of the 1970s feminists developed an analysis that would challenge the most common myths about rape, which they defined as any unwanted sexual contact. They organized more speak-outs across the country to demonstrate that rape was not an isolated or uncommon event. They published hugely influential books and articles such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Susan Griffin’s Rape—The All American Crime, Barbara Mehrhof and Pamela Kearon’s Rape: An Act of Terror, and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. At its core, anti-rape ideology insisted that rape was about violence, not sex, providing feminists with a new framework that removed all blame from victims whose claims were viewed as fully credible. The threat of sexual violence perpetuated male dominance and patriarchy, and eliminating rape would require transforming the gendered social arrangements that pervaded American culture. These ideas were then disseminated through the growing network of journals and newspapers, both mainstream and underground. By 1973 more than 560 feminist periodicals were being published in the United States, such as Everywoman (Los Angeles), Second Wave (Cambridge), Off Our Back (Washington, D.C.), Rat (New York), and Big Mama Rag (Denver).

ANTI-RAPE ORGANIZING

Armed with a shared consciousness and set of political goals, feminists created an array of organizations to agitate for policy reform and provide services to victims. They took many forms. Self-defense groups trained women in martial arts and other skills to combat violence against them and instill a sense of self-reliance. The first rape crisis center, designed to provide direct services to sexual assault victims, was founded in 1972 in Washington, D.C. Rape crisis centers cropped up throughout the country, aided by the Washington, D.C., center’s widely distributed pamphlet, “How to Start a Rape Crisis Center.” At its 1973 national conference, the National Organization of Women, the nation’s largest women’s rights organization, adopted Resolution 148, creating the organization’s National Rape Task Force. And in mid-1974 the Feminist Alliance Against Rape (FAAR) was founded to serve as “an autonomous organization of community-based and feminist-controlled anti-rape projects.” In 1975, “Take back the night” became a rallying cry when the first march calling for an end to sexual violence took place in Philadelphia. The year 1978 saw the founding of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA), whose main goal was “to end sexual violence and rape in our society.”

By the mid-1970s the anti-rape movement had achieved some significant policy victories. A major focus was law reform. The humiliation and dismissiveness faced by victims brave enough to report their assaults to the police and to press for criminal prosecution and accountability were characterized as simply another rape. Rape laws themselves were seen as biased toward the defendant because they required standards of proof that were almost impossible to meet.[9] In some states, for example, the law required “corroborative evidence” of non-consent before a prosecutor would bring a case; the victim’s testimony, no matter how compelling, was never enough. In New York the Anti-Rape Squad organized an “Assault on the State Legislature to Repeal the Corroboration Requirement,” and a coalition of feminist groups campaigned for its full repeal with legislative testimony, press conferences, and rallies. In 1974, the campaign succeeded, demonstrating the movement’s ability to change entrenched law and policy. Other reforms followed.

THE MOVEMENT’S LIMITATIONS

RAPE AND RACE

The feminist movement of the 1970s and beyond has long been criticized for being predominantly white and middle-class and for not addressing the needs and concerns of poor women, Black women, and other women of color. Although there were Black women who participated in and led the anti-rape movement, critics argued that the movement did not adequately analyze or act upon the complex intersection of rape and race in this country. Obviously, Black men accused of raping white women, especially in the South, did not enjoy the deference the legal system paid to white male defendants. And the movement’s assertion that all women were equally subject to rape and its aftermath was rejected by Black women and other women of color who never expected fair treatment from the criminal justice system. Scholar and activist bell hooks explained the racial hierarchy that applied in how rape was treated in her 1981 book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism:

As far back as slavery, white people established a social hierarchy based on race and sex that ranked white men first, white women second, though sometimes equal to black men, who are ranked third, and black women last. What this means in terms of the sexual politics of rape is that if one white woman is raped by a black man, it is seen as more important, more significant than if thousands of black women are raped by one white man. Most Americans, and that includes black people, acknowledge and accept this hierarchy; they have internalized it either consciously or unconsciously. And for this reason, all through American history, black male rape of white women has attracted much more attention and is seen as much more significant than rape of black women by either white or black men.

RAPE AND GENDER

The exclusive focus on cisgender women led the anti-rape movement to ignore other groups of people who were preyed upon sexually. A survey of close to 30,000 transgender people in the United States conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that nearly half (47%) of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten (10%) were sexually assaulted in the past year. In communities of color, these numbers are higher: 53% of Black respondents were sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 13% were sexually assaulted in the past year.[10] Although such data were not collected in the 1970s before the advent of a transgender rights movement, there is every reason to believe that the statistics were equally disturbing. Sexual violence against men and boys was also unexamined and discounted as an issue by the early anti-rape movement.

RAPE CULTURE

In spite of its many achievements, the anti-rape movement did not dislodge what came to be called the country’s “rape culture,” a term first coined by the New York Radical Feminist Collective in 1974 in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women. It is a term in much use today in discussions about the continuing prevalence of sexual assaults. In the words of feminist journalist Amanda Taub, rape culture is: “A culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault” (“Rape Culture Isn’t a Myth,” Vox, Dec. 15, 2014). It leads to victim-blaming (“slutshaming”), stigmatization of the victim, and the perpetuation of sexist attitudes and leniency for the perpetrator. This in turn discourages survivors from speaking out and so, until recently, created a culture of silence.

According to Women’s Studies Professor Maria Bevacqua, who authored Rape on the Public Agenda (Northeastern University Press, 2000), by the time of Ronald Reagan’s ascendance to the presidency in 1981 the anti-rape movement had “reached the stage of abeyance. Organizations were operating in a ‘holding pattern,’ devoting energy to maintaining hard-won gains rather than undertaking new challenges to the established order.” Rape was no longer the hot issue it had been in the 1970s. In many ways, the existing narratives were left intact.

 

THE SEXUAL ASSAULT NARRATIVES BEFORE #METOO

In 2010 FrameWorks Institute, a progressive communications think tank, published a study commissioned by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Titled, “American Perceptions of Sexual Violence,” it reported findings based on a series of interviews with both experts and “average Americans.” The experts, who were identified by the NSVRC, were practitioners working in the field of sexual violence and its prevention. The average Americans were recruited in Los Angeles and Philadelphia by a professional marketing firm to “represent variation along the domains of ethnicity, gender, age, educational background and political ideology.”

FrameWorks found that there were substantial gaps in understanding between the two groups. The experts emphasized that sexual violence impacts all parts of society and that it happens more frequently than most members of the public realize. They explained that perpetrators are “everyday people” who are known and even loved by their victims. According to the experts, one of the primary causes of sexual violence is a culture of unequal power relationships seen to “give people permission” to dehumanize others. In contrast, the nonexperts regarded sexual predators as mentally disturbed or immoral individuals who were molded by “bad upbringing” by their parents. They fell back on the assumption that people are responsible for ensuring their own safety and talked about girls and women needing to “think about” and “choose” the kinds of clothes they wear, the places they go, behaviors such as walking alone, and the company they keep. In these responses are the telltale signs of the acceptance of “rape myths.”

In 1980, psychologist Martha M. Burt published her groundbreaking research on the prevalence of rape myths and their influence on interpersonal violence. She defined rape myths as “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.” Her hypothesis was that the acceptance of rape myths predisposed individuals to perpetrate sexual assaults. Based on the administration of a Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (RMAS) of her own devising to 600 randomly selected adults, she found that many Americans believed in rape myths. For example, more than half of the individuals agreed that “a woman who goes to the home or apartment of a man” on the first date “implies she is willing to have sex” and that in the majority of rapes “the victim was promiscuous or had a bad reputation.” More than half of Burt’s respondents agreed that 50 percent or more of reported rapes were reported “only because the woman was trying to get back at a man” or “trying to cover up an illegitimate pregnancy.” Burt posited that rape myth acceptance was the link to the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the United States. Her RMAS is still used today by researchers.

Since that time, a body of interdisciplinary social science research has documented that rape myth acceptance is still pervasive in American society. In a leading journal article surveying the field, the authors conclude:

  • “Rape myths, which include elements of victim blame, perpetrator absolution, and minimization or rationalization of sexual violence, perpetuate sexual violence against women. Indeed, research has documented that men’s engagement in sexual violence is predicted by rape myth acceptance…rape myths, despite their falsehood, are endorsed by a substantial segment of the population and permeate legal, media, and religious institutions.”[11]
  • Recent examples of rape myths in action are legion, but here are just a few:

· The dismissal of then-candidate Trump’s boast about his own sexually assaultive behavior in the Access Hollywood recording as “just locker room talk.”

· Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) claim in 2012 in a debate over abortion rights that “[i]f it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.”

· A 2014 Forbes.com article by columnist Bill Frezza titled, “Drunk Female Guests Are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.”

· Fraternity pledges at Yale chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.”

· A judge lectures the victim of a sexual groping incident: “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you…. When you blame others you give up your power to change.”[12]

Popular culture transmits and reinforces rape myths through song lyrics, television shows, movies, and, of course, pornography, especially when it depicts violence. Rick Ross raps: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it, I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” The role of popular media in reinforcing rape myths has been the subject of research.One study of the effects of certain video games concluded that “a video game depicting sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in statistically significant increased rape myths acceptance (rape-supportive attitudes) for male study participants but not for female participants.”[13] A study of the content of popular comic books found that they reinforced rape myths: “Rape myths that were supported included a number of rape survivor, rape perpetrator, and victim blaming myths.”[14]

A LITANY OF SCANDALS, 1991-2017

The recurring sex scandals that have rocked the nation over the past 30 years are compelling evidence of the persistent influence of rape myths and rape culture—scandals that have been vigorously reported in the media, to be followed by some reforms, and then pushed into the background. This is the backdrop for what was to become the #MeToo Movement.

SEPTEMBER 1991: The Tailhook Scandal
The Tailhook Association, a fraternal organization for members of the military, held its annual convention at the Las Vegas Hilton. One night, a “gauntlet” of male military officers groped, molested, or committed other sexual or physical assaults and harassment on women who walked through the hotel’s third floor hallway. Ultimately, more than one hundred U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation officers were accused of sexually assaulting eighty-three women and seven men. An investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office led to approximately forty naval and Marine officers receiving nonjudicial punishment for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Three officers were taken to courts-martial, but their cases were dismissed. No officers were disciplined for the alleged sexual assaults.

OCTOBER 1991: The Anita Hill Hearings
In 3 days of televised hearings before the U.S. Senate, law professor Anita Hill described the crude and relentless sexual harassment she had experienced during the time she worked under the supervision of Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. The all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee’s dismissive and offensive treatment of Ms. Hill became legendary. Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court.

NOVEMBER 1996: The Aberdeen Sex Scandal
The Army opened an investigation into multiple sexual assaults at the Army Ordnance Center and Schools on Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland after a female recruit reported an assault. Referred to as “the Army’s Tailhook” and “the Aberdeen rape ring,” twelve drill instructors were charged with sex crimes, including one instructor who was eventually convicted of raping six female trainees. Ultimately, four were sentenced to prison, while eight others were discharged or received nonjudicial punishment.

JANUARY 1998: The Bill Clinton Sex Scandal
The legal and political fallout from the President’s affair with his 24-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky, would dominate the news for much of the year. Although portrayed as a consensual relationship, Clinton’s behavior and his repeated claims that he “had not had sexual relations with that woman” were emblematic of the unequal power relationships that exist in the workplace and how powerful men can prey upon their subordinates with relative impunity.

JANUARY 2002:
The Boston Globe broke the story about sexual abuse of boys committed by priest John J. Geoghan and the coverup by the Catholic diocese. This revelation was followed by the public exposure of numerous priests in the United States and around the world who had molested children under their care and supervision.

JANUARY 2003: The Colorado Springs Air Force Academy Scandal
An anonymous e-mail to the Air Force chief of staff, members of Congress, and the media alleging that there was a serious sexual assault problem at the Academy that was being ignored by the institution’s leadership ignited an investigation by the Air Force’s inspector general. The investigation revealed that 12 percent of the women who graduated from the Academy in 2003 reported that they were victims of rape or attempted rape. A survey of 579 women at the academy (out of a total enrollment of 659) found that 70 percent had been the victims of sexual harassment, of which 22 percent said they experienced “pressure for sexual favors.”

NOVEMBER 2011: Pennsylvania State University Scandal
The Penn State scandal broke when Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach for the university’s football team, was charged with 52 counts of child molestation over a period of 15 years. Three Penn State officials were charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and failure to report suspected child abuse. Sandusky was ultimately convicted on forty-five counts of child sexual abuse and was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of 60 years in prison.

MAY 2011: Delta Kappa Epsilon Suspension
The Yale University chapter of the DKE fraternity was suspended for 5 years after pledges marched through the freshman residential quadrangle chanting “No means yes, yes means anal,” “Fucking sluts!” and “I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen” and for carrying a sign that read “We love Yale sluts.”

FEBRUARY 2014: University of Michigan Cover-Up
In 2009 a student accused an up-and-coming football kicker, Brendan Gibbons, of rape. She reported the incident to the resident advisor of her dorm, a university housing security officer, campus police, and Ann Arbor police, but nothing was done. Four years later it was revealed that the university had engaged in a cover-up so that Gibbons could continue to play for the school team.

APRIL 2014: Complaints Against Columbia University
Twenty-three Columbia University students filed complaints with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights charging systematic mishandling of sexual assault claims and mistreatment of victims by the university. They contended that campus counseling services pressured them not to report sexual assault or harassment and that perpetrators were rarely expelled. One of the survivors, Emma Sulkowicz, generated media attention by carrying around a mattress on campus in protest.

JULY 2014: University of Connecticut Settles Case
It was announced that the University of Connecticut would pay $1.28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by five students who charged that the university had treated their claims of sexual assault and harassment with indifference. The university denied any wrongdoing. None of the men accused in the complaint faced criminal charges. One accused rapist was expelled, but his expulsion was appealed and he was permitted back on campus.

NOVEMBER 2014: Bill Cosby Survivors Speak Out
After stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress called out Cosby as a rapist during a Philadelphia performance, numerous women describe being drugged and raped by him. Eventually, nearly sixty women accused him of sexual assault over a period of 30 years. The criminal investigation, trials, and conviction in Pennsylvania generated enormous press coverage.

OCTOBER 2016: Access Hollywood Tape
On October 7, during the run-up to the presidential election, The Washington Post published a video and accompanying article about candidate Donald Trump’s comments to Access Hollywood TV show host Billy Bush in 2005. In the video, Trump described his attempt to seduce a married woman and indicated he might start kissing a woman that he and Bush were about to meet. He added, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

APRIL 1, 2017: Bill O’Reilly Settlements
The New York Times broke the story that Fox News had reached settlements with six women who had worked for him or appeared on his show totaling $45 million and dating to 2002. The news came out in spite of the nondisclosure agreements each woman was compelled to sign. O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News.

OCTOBER 5, 2017: The Outing of Harvey Weinstein
The New York Times ran the story investigated by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.” It included quotes from several of his victims, including actress Ashley Judd, and described how his misconduct had been tolerated and kept hidden by his company’s inner circle. Two days later he was fired by his own company.

OCTOBER 10, 2017: The Weinstein Scandal Deepens
The New Yorker published Ronan Farrow’s investigative report, “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories.” Based on interviews with thirteen women who Weinstein had harassed or assaulted, the article described how Weinstein and his associates used nondisclosure agreements, payoffs, and legal threats to suppress their accounts.

OCTOBER 15, 2017: #MeToo
In a tweet titled Me Too, actress Alyssa Milano wrote: Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” By 3:21 p.m. that day, 90,400 people were “talking about this.”

THE ORIGINS OF ME TOO

The scandals that erupted during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s in hotspots like the military and college campuses or that involved well-known perpetrators received extensive media coverage and led to some ameliorative policies and actions. In 1994 the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, providing federal funding for investigation and prosecution of crimes against women. In 2004 the Congressional Women’s Caucus held a hearing on the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, which led to the introduction of the Military Justice Improvement Act. And in 2014, President Obama formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. But still hidden from view and unaddressed was another scandal: the large number of sexual assaults against women and girls of color in low-wealth communities and the desperate lack of resources and services for the survivors of those assaults. Enter Tarana Burke.

Tarana Burke is an activist from the Bronx, New York who is herself a survivor of sexual violence. In 2003 she began working with an afterschool program for Black girls aged 12 to 18 in Philadelphia and was struck by how many of them were traumatized by sexual assaults they had experienced. In her own words, she “set out to bring healing to the Black and Brown girls in my community while raising awareness about the trauma they faced, and the lack of protections made available to them.” In 2006 she founded a nonprofit organization called Me Too. Burke’s goal was to center survivors in their own healing journeys, to create community, and work “to interrupt sexual violence in a real way.”

On the day of the Milano tweet Burke began receiving phone calls and e-mails from friends telling her that the MeToo hashtag was all over social media. “I didn’t really tweet; I wasn’t a tweeter.” Burke said. In an interview with Teen Vogue she described her initial reaction:

This fortuitous confluence of a celebrity-driven social media campaign with an existing social justice–oriented, Black-led movement would be the catalyst for shifting the narrative about sexual violence in America.

#METOO

The Milano tweet opened the floodgates and demonstrated, for the first time, the force and power social media was able to inject into the framing of sexual violence. The phrase “Me too” was used more than 200,000 times by the end of the first day and had been tweeted more than 500,000 times by the next day, October 16. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours. By October 17 it had become headline news all over the country:

  • #MeToo Floods Social Media With Stories of Harassment and Assault, New York Times
  • Mich. women call out sexual harassment, Detroit Free Press
  • #MeToo Campaign Empowers Women in Pittsburgh to Join Movement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • ‘Me too’ campaign gains ground as safe space for stories of harassment, The San Francisco Chronicle
  • Oklahomans say #MeToo, The Oklahoman

By the end of the first week, 1,595,453 tweets were posted, and the numbers continued to soar. The hashtag went global, with tweets from 85 countries posted by October 27. As noted in a 2018 report produced by The Opportunity Agenda, between October 2017 and September 30, 2018, more than 27 million online posts with specific references to “Me-Too,” “me too,” “me too movement,” and other variants were generated (The Opportunity Agenda, 2018). The vast majority of content in this first year of widespread online engagement focused on Harvey Weinstein, and sexual violence within the entertainment industry more broadly. An exploration of key phrases generated between October 2017 and September 2018 shows a strong association between revelations of sexual harassment experienced by high-profile women within the entertainment industry and overall discourse related to #MeToo (Figure 1).

Despite this early focus on the culture of sexual violence within Hollywood, data from a variety of sources have revealed a strong correlation between the initial viral proliferation of #MeToo and wider narrative and cultural change. For instance, traffic to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s page about sexual harassment saw a significant spike beginning in October 2017, when a total of 66,625 unique visitors came to the website, more than double the number of visitors from the previous month.[15]

A similar pattern is observed in the national and local news media, with a clear correlation between increased discussion of #MeToo and a dramatic increase in news media coverage of sexual assault, harassment, and related topics. While overall coverage related to sexual violence had begun to increase in 2013, between 2016 and 2017, news media coverage of sexual violence saw a 65 percent increase as a direct result of #MeToo (see Figures 3 and 4).

 

Far from being restricted to the high-profile women, the culture of silence that had shrouded sexual violence in secrecy was ended as millions of women (and men) shared their long-buried experiences. This, in itself, was a momentous narrative shift. In Alyssa Milano’s words, the response gave people “a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” and the ground shifted.

#MeToo allowed survivors of sexual assault to reclaim their formerly “stigmatized narrative.” Past surveys have shown that up to 40 percent of women never disclosed to anyone, and of those who did, most confided only in a close friend. Scholars explain that:

Stigmatization depends on an implicit collective enforcement of the boundaries between public and private. Pregnancy loss, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other issues experienced by women have a long history of being excluded from the public sphere by being deemed private matters. Women who do choose to disclose publicly risk reactions of disbelief or worse, blame. Blaming survivors of sexual violence discourages further disclosures, effectively chilling the collective narrative of those who have been sexually harassed and assaulted. The totality and consequences of social stigma against disclosures of sexual violence paint a bleak picture of a culture where sexual violence against women is not recognized as the pervasive public health issue which it is.[16]

Through survivors’ access to social media, this previously hidden “collective narrative” was able to break through the “chill.” As one scholar put it, “Digital spaces create perpetual conversations, especially for marginalized folk who use social media as an access point they are often denied in live communication.”[17] Once those “perpetual conversations” reach a size and level of intensity that cannot be ignored by the mainstream media, they pose a counternarrative that has the capacity to capture the general public’s attention.

The term “hashtag activism” first appeared in news coverage in 2011 to describe the creation and proliferation of online activism stamped with a hashtag. It has been critiqued as “slacktivism” because it enables participants to feel that they have done something good when all they have done is make the minimal effort of clicking “like” to show support. Because of “slacktivism,” critics assert that social media movements rarely manifest in the physical world as actual protest movements. But in certain circumstances, social media in general, and Twitter in particular, can lead to a firestorm of political action and activity.

In their book #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, communication scholars Sarah Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles argue for:

the importance of the digital labor of raced and gendered counter-publics. Ordinary African Americans, women, transgender people, and others aligned with racial justice and feminist causes have long been excluded from the elite media spaces yet have repurposed Twitter in particular to make identity-based cultural and political demands, and in doing so have forever changed national consciousness. From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, hashtags have been the lingua franca of this phenomenon.

It is fair to say that #MeToo has been one of the most, if not the most, successful example of hashtag activism to date. The early participation of celebrities with their huge numbers of Twitter followers was a major factor, but so too was the fact that the pump had been primed by earlier online efforts to bring attention to the issue of sexual violence:

The #MeToo boon was made possible by its predecessors and by the digital labor, consciousness raising, and alternative storytelling done by #YesAllWomen, #SurvivorPrivilege, #WhyIStayed, #TheEmptyChair, and many other hashtags and conversations about gendered violence that were pushed into visibility by women and their allies on Twitter.”[18]

 

In the ensuing days, weeks, and months survivors’ stories continued to reverberate in both traditional and social media. Three days after the Milano tweet, gymnast McKayla Maroney tweeted about her sexual assault at the hands of Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics national team doctor at Michigan State University. After that, more than 150 others came forward and shocked the nation with their stories of abuse by Nassar when they were young gymnasts. The issue was kept alive by a steady stream—some might say cascade—of accusations against men, many of them celebrities, politicians, or titans of industry, who then resigned, were fired, or were replaced. An incomplete list for the last quarter of 2017 includes:

OCTOBER
Chris Savino, creator of Nickelodeon’s The Loud House; Mark Halperin, political journalist; Cliff Hite, Ohio state senator; Kevin Spacey and Andy Dick, actors; Michael Oreskes, head of news at NPR; Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios.

NOVEMBER
Don Shooter, Arizona state representative; Dan Schoen, Minnesota state senator; Louis C.K., comedian and producer; Tony Mendoza, California state senator; Andrew Kreisberg, executive producer of superhero dramas; Steve Lebsock, Colorado state representative; Jeff Kruse, Oregon state senator; Senator Al Franken (D-MI); David Sweeney, chief news editor at NPR; Charlie Rose, television host; Matt Lauer, television news anchor.

DECEMBER
James Levine, conductor at the Metropolitan Opera; Peter Martins, ballet master in chief, New York City Ballet; Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review; Matt Manweller, Washington State representative; Leonard Lopate, host on New York Public Radio; Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers NFL team; Trent Franks, U.S. Representative for Arizona; John Moore, Mississippi state representative.

Time Magazine named “the Silence Breakers,” the men and women who spoke about their experiences with sexual misconduct, as Person of the Year in 2017. On January 1, 2018 the Time’s Up initiative was announced. Spearheaded by 300 women working in entertainment, its mission statement says:

By helping change culture, companies, and laws, TIME’S UP Now aims to create a society free of gender-based discrimination in the workplace and beyond. We want every person—across race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and income level—to be safe on the job and have equal opportunity for economic success and security.

On January 7, actors and actresses participated in a red carpet “blackout” by wearing black gowns and Time’s Up pins at the Golden Globe awards and Tarana Burke was introduced to the world. On January 20, millions participated in the second annual Women’s March. On March 4, #MeToo and Time’s Up came to the Oscars and Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd, and Salma Hayek, three of Weinstein’s many accusers, spoke of the movements and the changes they hoped to see take place in Hollywood and beyond. On April 16, Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times and Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their investigation of Harvey Weinstein and company.

The ferocity of the movement and the speed with which powerful (and not so powerful) men were being toppled from their positions led to a backlash from both the left and the right. In a piece entitled, “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo,” conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan dismissed it as a “moral panic” that would “at some point exhaust itself.” “Politically Incorrect” Bill Maher worried that “fragile” millennials were “going to bleed what is so great out of life” by being oversensitive. Contrarian feminist Katie Roiphe published “The Other Whisper Network” in Harper’s Magazine in which she accused “the feminist moment” of #MeToo of “great, unmanageable anger…that can lead to an alarming lack of proportion.” Many other articles of similar ilk were published in the early months of the movement, along with responses from equally passionate defenders. But these controversies did not alter the narrative shift’s inexorable advance, at least among women. According to a Vox-commissioned survey conducted in March 2018, 71 percent of women under the age of 35 and 68 percent of women age 35-plus said they supported #MeToo.

Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who was the architect of interpreting sexual harassment in the workplace as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by federal law, has described #MeToo as “a cataclysmic transformation” that is “shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.” Because of #MeToo:

Sexual abuse was finally being reported in the established media as pervasive and endemic rather than sensational and exceptional…. Sexual abuse is being unearthed in every corner of society—sports as well as entertainment, food as well as finance, tech and transportation as well as employment and education, children as well as adults. As staggering as the revelations have been to many who failed to face the long-known real numbers, the structural place of this dynamic has only begun to be exposed[19]

Because of #MeToo, the conversation began to change.

#METOO IN THE NOW: ONLINE DISCOURSE 2018–2020

While Harvey Weinstein and the entertainment industry played a central role in propelling #MeToo into a global movement, an analysis of more recent data highlights the longer-term impact of the initial hashtag, specifically the tensions that have emerged as discourse has become increasingly politicized across party lines.

Between September 2018 and October 2020, a further 5 million unique social media posts were generated referring to “me too” or the “me too movement” in the United States, highlighting the continued momentum of the movement and hashtag. As seen in Figure 5, the significant spike in engagement driven by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing in October 2018 was a pivotal point in terms of the volume of online discourse, with commentary around the hearing generating 867,000 posts from nearly 300,000 unique authors.

Alongside generating a significant volume of social media content, online commentary around Brett Kavanaugh singled an important turning point in focus of online discourse related to #MeToo. Since the end of October 2018, #MeToo experienced three additional spikes in online engagement:

  • April 1, 2019: Following widespread media coverage of Lucy Flores’s and Amy Lappos’s accusations of sexual harassment against Joe Biden
  • April 27, 2020: Widespread media coverage of Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual harassment against Joe Biden
  • August 17, 2020: Controversy following Bill Clinton’s presence at the Democratic National Convention

All three spikes in engagement were linked by a central theme—that is, the growing partisanship with which discussions of sexual violence and belief of survivors appears to be governed. The visualization of the top topics/phrases to dominate social media discourse between September 2018 and October 2020 (Figure 6) highlights how political figures accused of sexual assault and harassment have become a prominent feature of online discourse. In addition to Kavanaugh, “Trump,” “President, “Senate,” and “Biden” appear as some of the most prominent topics of focus in overall online discourse related to #MeToo within the same timeframe.

The more prominent focus on high-profile political figures is just one example of how #MeToo discourse online has become increasingly muddled by those seeking to discredit political opponents. It also points to the tension between the heightened calls to “believe survivors” and the continued concessions made for powerful men, particularly when the belief or disbelief in a survivor intersects with political affiliation. This tension is clearly seen in the discussions of accusations facing now President Joe Biden. While opinion of #MeToo has always been split across party lines (in a May 2018 poll by Morning Consulting, 81% of Democrats said they backed the movement, compared with 54 percent of Republicans),[20] the commentary surrounding Tara Reade has been largely shadowed by partisanship.

While these attempts to co-opt the movement for political purposes have become a prominent feature of online discourse since 2018, online data also indicate that a large portion of women continue to engage with #MeToo as an avenue to challenge the culture of sexual violence. Figure 7 visualizes the phrases commonly found within mentions according to association with male or female authors.[21] Between 2018 and 2020, identifiable female authors were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to mention “times up,” “sexual violence,” and “sexual harassment” in relation to #MeToo. At the same time, identifiable male authors were more likely to mention “Bernie,” “Biden,” and “Democratic Party” in relation to #MeToo than their female counterparts, reflecting the differing priorities, and more partisan motivations, of many male authors.

 

While the longer-term impact of this global movement is yet to be realized, because of #MeToo, the conversation began to change.

THE SURVIVORS’ AGENDA

On June 25, 2020, in the midst of both the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests over the police murder of George Floyd, an online panel discussion was held to announce the launch of Survivors’ Agenda, whose mission statement reads:

In October 2017, the world shifted as millions of people raised their hand to say ‘me too.’ This shift has impacted the personal lives of millions, and entered the cultural zeitgeist in an unpredictable and unprecedented way. Two years later, we are still experiencing the ripple effects of the moment, and shifting into how a movement is born from its wake. The Survivors’ Agenda Initiative is about building power and changing the conversation—especially for those most marginalized and kept down by the structural oppressions of our society.[22]

With more than 700 participants in virtual attendance, six leaders representing organizations that represent women of color spoke.[23] Emphasizing the need for an intersectional approach that recognizes the various forms of “interlocking oppression” people of color and other marginalized people face, their remarks embrace the components of a bold new narrative about sexual violence in America from which four main pillars emerge.

THE FOUR PILLARS OF A NEW NARRATIVE

Listen to and believe survivors.

So many survivors have been speaking out and organizing, and we’re still struggling to have our voices heard. And the dominant narrative still blames us and shames us at worst, or, at best defines us as victims without power, without agency and without leadership capacity. And so that means that when these solutions get developed, if they get defined, it’s too often without us. And so the only thing that really shifts that dynamic is us organizing as survivors together, building our power together. And that’s what this is all about.

AI-JEN POO

Survivors come from diverse backgrounds; the most marginalized voices must be included and amplified.

People of color, Black people and other marginalized groups feel unseen; not in the mainstream. We don’t see ourselves in the media or on the news unless it’s to benefit the media.…We are prioritizing the most marginalized. This work is being led by folks who represent those groups. And it’s in our principles to uplift and amplify those voices. It’s not just survivors that don’t get heard, but as you add the intersections of who we are as survivors: disabled, queer, veteran, I mean you can go down the list of people whose voices get pushed to the side.

TARANA BURKE

Surviving sexual violence can lead to a lifetime of trauma; it is a public health crisis and survivors need and deserve respect and help.

Violence is not just between white men in uniforms and folks on street corners. Violence also looks like intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. It also looks like the intimate ways that it lives in our home, in our communities. We understand that sexual abuse is a public health crisis. Too long it has been told that it is a personal issue. But we are here saying that it is a public health crisis…. What do we need to feel safe, loved and cared for by our communities and by lawmakers?

NIKITA MITCHELL

The culture must change; institutions must be held accountable; new systems must be created.

When we consider the kinds of systems that have to exist to eradicate sexual violence, it’s an xercise in thinking about what are the changes that have to be made within the systems, and also re-imagining what justice and safety look like…. What is a system that promotes healing? What are the systems that promote prevention? And what are the kinds of teachings that we’re offering to people so that we can create a new world that is free of violence? When it comes to the eradication of violence, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are power imbalances that have allowed people to perpetuate violence without any accountability…. So, when we think about gender inequality and the ways in which we have sexual violence happening in the workplace, it’s because people think they can wield power over survivors. That exists because of systems of discrimination and inequality.

MONICA RAMIREZ

CONCLUSION

The stories that we are trying to undo are longstanding and extraordinarily deeply embedded and it’s going to take a while to uproot them. I’m optimistic because we’re in the middle of tightening and weaving together a new story and it’s through activism and engagement that we will open people’s minds to something different. But it would be wrong to suggest that we are not still grappling with old tropes like survivors lie and this being an individual, not a societal, problem. We are grappling with these old tropes every day across the nation.”

FATIMA GOSS GRAVES, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center

Two significant events in the midst of #MeToo showed the continuing power of rape myths on the one hand and the public’s changing consciousness about the realities of sexual violence on the other. In September 2018 a woman named Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault committed when they were teenagers. In a tumultuous televised Senate hearing, Blasey Ford was interrogated by a seasoned female sex crimes prosecutor hired by the all-male Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee “as an appropriate reflection of the seriousness” of the hearing. Democrats on the committee complained that having a prosecutor rather than a committee member doing the questioning gave the impression Blasey Ford was on trial, and indeed the questions posed were geared toward undermining her credibility.[24] Kavanaugh’s testimony was described by one reporter as “a combination of anger and pathos” during which he lashed out at Democrats and what he called a “grotesque and co-ordinated character assassination,” warning darkly, “what goes around comes around.”[25] The Senate’s very partisan vote to elevate this man to the highest court could be described as a classic case of rape myth acceptance.

In contrast, the jury’s conviction of Harvey Weinstein in February 2020 showed that people are ready, willing, and able to reject longstanding rape myths. Weinstein’s defense made much of the fact that some of the women who testified against him had maintained a relationship with him after the assault occurred, arguing that would never have happened if there had really been nonconsensual sex. But the prosecutors called veteran forensic psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Ziv, who had testified at Bill Cosby’s criminal trial the year before. Through her expert testimony she exposed and undermined a number of rape myths and explained to the jury that the failure to report a rape and the maintenance of contact with the perpetrator after the assault did not support Weinstein’s claims that the acts of which he was accused were consensual. She testified that it was very rare for a woman who has been sexually assaulted by someone she knew—which is the case in 85 percent of rapes—to tell others about it. It is rarer still for her to report the crime to the police. And she testified that victims typically do continue contact with their perpetrator, including texting, calling, and even having a relationship with their rapist. On February 24, the jury found Weinstein guilty, and a month later he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Headlines emphasized the historical significance of the conviction:

  • Harvey Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in prison in landmark #MeToo case, NBC News
  • Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and rape convictions marked a major #MeToo moment, CNN
  • Weinstein faces sentencing, prison in landmark #MeToo case, AP

Will this new movement against sexual violence succeed where its precursors have not? Much will depend on its efforts to bring about narrative shift, and in this regard, there is reason to be hopeful. Narrative shift is an explicit goal of #MeToo: “We are about strategizing action to disrupt rape culture, and shifting the narrative to bring these conversations into the powerful spaces where change happens.”[26] With its focus on how different forms of oppression intersect because of oppressive systems, this movement has the potential to bring about the fundamental change necessary to minimize the public health threat that is sexual violence in America.

Request Interview Transcripts


1 Carly Gieseler, The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019, 170.

2 https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/sffucrp.pdf

3 https://www.sapr.mil/sites/default/files/FY17_AR_Report_Statistical_Highlights_Info_Graphic_FINAL.jpg

4 https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/10/campus-sexual-assault-survey/

5 World Population Review is a website dedicated to global population data and trends.

6 https://www.forbes.com/sites/bowmanmarsico/2018/01/16/sexual-harassment-what-do-the-polls-say/#6ddf09a35ac0

7 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/a-majority-of-americans-now-say-that-sexual-harassment-is-a-serious-problem/2017/10/16/707e6b74-b290-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html

8 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/poll-a-third-of-women-say-theyve-been-sexually-harassed-or-abused-at-work

9 This criticism, of course, did not apply when Black men were accused of sexually assaulting white women.

10 https://vawnet.org/sc/serving-trans-and-non-binary-survivors-domestic-and-sexual-violence/violence-against-trans-and

11 Edwards KM, Turchik JT, Dardis T, Reynolds N, and Gidycz CA, Rape myths: History, individual and institutional-level presence, and implications for change. Sex Roles, 2011:65, 761–773.

12 http://archive.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/20120907roberts0908-unbelievable-judge-lectures-abuse-victim.html

13 Beck, et al., “Violence Against Women in Video Games: A Prequel or Sequel to Rape Myth Acceptance?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2012.

14 Garland et al., “Blurring the Lines: Reinforcing Rape Myths in Comic Books” (Feminist Criminology, 2015).

15 Chiwaya, Nigel, “New data on #MeToo’s first year shows ‘undeniable’ impact,” NBC News, October 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/new-data-metoo-s-first-year-showsundeniable-impact-n918821?cid=sm_npd_nn_tw_ma

16 Ryan Gallagher, Elizabeth Stowell, Andrea G. Parker, and Brooke Foucault Welles. “Reclaiming stigmatized narratives: The networked disclosure landscape of #MeToo.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. November 2019:96. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359198

17 Carly Gieseler, The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

18 Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, Brooke Foucault Welles, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020).

19 Where #MeToo Came From, and Where It’s Going, The Atlantic, March 24, 2019.

20 https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/are-americans-more-divided-on-metoo-issues/

21 It is important to note significant limitations of these data. First, the data do not account for non-gender binary individuals. Also, gender identification is based on self-identification and is likely to be skewed by bots, dummy accounts, and misidentification.

22 Emphasis added.

23 They were Nikita Mitchell, Rising Majority; Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance; Monica Ramirez, Justice for Migrant Women; Tarana Burke, ‘me too’; Michelle Grier, Girls for Gender Equity; and Fatima Goss Graves, National Women’s Law Center.

24 https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/25/republicans-hire-female-sex-prosecutor-to-grill-kavanaugh-and-accuser-ford.html

25 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45660297

26 me too. Impact Report 2019, p. 8

Narrative Shift: From The War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It”

The conversation about the War on Poverty, welfare, and other public assistance programs has reflected a series of narrative shifts. This case study describes how this conversation evolved over a period of three decades, from 1964 to 1996—from a time when the federal government’s intervention in the economic life of the country to create more opportunity for those on the bottom rung was seen as a positive good, to a time when such a role for government was seen as counterproductive and even harmful. It tells the story of how a relatively small conservative movement was able to harness the power and resources of major corporations to fund think tanks and foundations that would produce the intellectual capital to attack the liberal War on Poverty and Great Society of the Johnson years, how the mass media would carry this new conservative narrative, and how the dog-whistle rhetoric of Ronald Reagan would reinforce and reify it.

METHODOLOGY

Our research methodology included in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, a comprehensive literature review, and traditional and social media research.

INTERVIEWEES:
  • Frances Fox Piven, PhD, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Vintage Books, 1979
  • Martin Gilens, PhD, Professor of Public Policy, UCLA, and author of Why Americans Hate Welfare, University of Chicago Press, 2009
  • Rebecca Vallas, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
  • Lee Cokorinos, Director of Democracy Strategies and author of Upsizing Democracy: Confronting the Right Wing Assault on Government, 2007
OTHER SOURCES CONSULTED:
  • Marisa Chappell, The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
  • Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Studies. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation With Poverty. Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. Basic Books, 1984.
  • Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, Eds., The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980. University of Georgia Press, 2011.
  • Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda. Temple University Press, 1996.
  • George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty. Basic Books, 1981.
  • Lawrence Mead, Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship. Free Press, 1986.

Based on a series of historical benchmarks, we identified three time periods and their external (i.e., events beyond the control of the advocates) and field-wide (or internal) tipping points that comprised the stages of narrative shift:

EARLY YEARS: THE GREAT SOCIETY, 1964–1970

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • President Johnson declares a War on Poverty and makes his “Great Society” speech.
  • The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act are passed and signed into law.
  • The Equal Opportunity Act and Community Action Program are passed and signed into law.
  • The Supreme Court upholds the rights of welfare recipients.
INTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • The National Welfare Rights Organization is founded.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. launches the Poor People’s Campaign.
  • Rights of welfare recipients begin to be established through litigation.
  • The concept of “community control” takes root.

MIDDLE YEARS: THE RISE OF THE CONSERVATIVE NARRATIVE, 1970–1990

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • Economic recession and cutbacks take place.
  • Urban uprisings begin to occur.
  • Increasingly negative media coverage of welfare fraud, “dysfunctional black family,” and crime is seen.
  • Ronald Reagan is elected, and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act is passed.
INTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • The Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and Americans for Tax Reform are founded.
  • Losing Ground by Charles Murray and Beyond Entitlement by Lawrence Mead are published.
  • The terms “the underclass,” “culture of poverty,” and “black family dysfunction” emerge.
  • Reagan launches his attacks on “welfare queens,” “welfare chiselers,” and “poverty pimps.”

LATER YEARS: “ENDING WELFARE AS WE KNOW IT,” 1990–1996

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • Clinton makes the campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.”
  • Republicans sweep Congress in 1994 midterm elections.
  • The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passes.
INTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • Gingrich’s Contract with America introduces the Personal Responsibility Act.
  • Religious right’s influence grows with “family values.”

THE WAR ON POVERTY

On January 8, 1964, in his first State of the Union Address, Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Describing his declaration as a continuation of the Kennedy legacy, he told the nation, “The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach [between federal, state, and local efforts] to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs…. Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and above all, to prevent it.” Several months later, Johnson gave his “Great Society” speech at the University of Michigan’s commencement exercises in which he called upon the graduating students to “join the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin” and to “join the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty.”

The “War on Poverty” was both a set of social policies and at the very core a narrative about the role of government in alleviating the effects of severe economic inequality. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), passed by Congress in August 1964, poured $947 million into anti-poverty programs. The four main policies enacted under the banner of the “war” were breathtaking in scope:

  • The Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid and also expanded Social Security benefits for retirees, widows, people with disabilities, and college-aged students.
  • The Food Stamp Act of 1964.
  • The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which established the Job Corps, the VISTA program, and the federal work-study program. It also established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the arm of the White House responsible for implementing the war on poverty and that created the Head Start and Legal Services for the Poor programs in the process.
  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which subsidized school districts with a large share of impoverished students.

It’s important to note that the cash assistance program, otherwise known as “welfare,” had already been established in 1935 as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as one of the signature achievements of the New Deal.

Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the War on Poverty manifested the positive role the federal government could, and should, play in addressing injustice and inequality. The aspirational narrative that propelled the War on Poverty was contained in the introduction to the Equal Opportunity Act:

It is the policy of the United States to eliminate the paradox of poverty in midst of plenty in this nation by opening, to everyone, the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.

Its soaring rhetoric emphasized the values of compassion, empowerment, and entitlement. It helped that in 1962 a book was published that had a profound impact on how the American public viewed poverty. This was The Other America by Michael Harrington, in which he revealed that 25 percent of the nation was destitute and “for reasons beyond their control, cannot help themselves.” The book was a publishing phenomenon; Time magazine named it one of the 10 most influential books of the twentieth century and it sold millions of copies. That such hidden suffering existed in the midst of the country’s post-war prosperity stirred the conscience of America. The successes of the New Deal, especially Social Security, were still fresh in voters’ minds, and a proactive role for the federal government in ameliorating social and economic problems was relatively uncontroversial.

The War on Poverty unleashed a wave of grassroots organizing and activism.[1] The OEO itself called for “maximum feasible participation” by the poor, and the Community Action Program (CAP) was adopted by Congress to funnel resources into local anti-poverty programs nationwide. In submitting the bill to Congress, President Johnson stated:

[THE CAP] asks men and women throughout the country to prepare long-range plans for the attack on poverty in their own local communities…. [T]hese plans will be local plans calling upon all the resources available to the community—Federal and State, local and private, human and material.

“Community control” became a watchword, and men and women living on the margins of society began to assert their rights. Women in particular were galvanized and advocated for better food, schools, and healthcare for their children. In 1966 the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) brought more than 50 local welfare rights groups under one umbrella; at its peak the NWRO had 25,000 mostly African American poor women as members. It engaged in legislative lobbying and public protest. In 1970 the welfare rights movement scored a major victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Goldberg v. Kelly that welfare benefits were “entitlements” in which recipients had a “property interest” that could not be abrogated without a hearing and other due process rights. In his majority opinion, Justice William Brennan echoed the fundamental premise and narrative of the War on Poverty:

“From its founding the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty. This perception, against the background of our traditions, has significantly influenced the development of the contemporary public assistance system.”

Many of the War on Poverty’s early programs are still functioning today and are considered fixtures of the nation’s social safety net. They include Medicaid and Medicare; Legal Services for the Poor; Head Start; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Job Corps. Nevertheless, in today’s public discourse, the War on Drugs is considered a failure, or, as President Ronald Reagan put it, “The federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” This case study describes, in broad strokes, the narrative shift that took place between President Johnson’s declaration of war and President Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

A TUMULTUOUS DECADE

The War on Poverty was launched on the eve of a tumultuous decade. At the same time the massive federal poverty program was being developed and implemented, the country was entering a period of sustained economic decline. It is also important to note that the coinciding war in Vietnam contributed to the shaping of perceptions and policies around the War on Poverty, particularly how returning soldiers were treated and the ongoing movements for civil rights and justice. For the millions of African Americans who migrated out of the Jim Crow South and moved into poor urban neighborhoods in the north and west of the country, the collapse of manufacturing and heavy industry in those areas meant living lives of extreme poverty. Frustration with police misconduct, joblessness, and the slow pace of change sparked urban uprisings in poor black communities across the country. According to the Kerner Commission report issued in February 1968,[2] there were more than 150 “urban riots” between 1964 and 1968.

Media coverage of conflagrations in Newark, Detroit, Watts (neighborhood of Los Angeles), and other cities carried images of African Americans looting stores and burning buildings in their own “ghetto” neighborhoods.[3] While the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement in the South garnered support from a majority of Americans—a Gallup poll taken in 1964 showed that the public approved of the Civil Rights Act by nearly two-to-one—many, if not most white Americans viewed the “ghetto riots” with fear and disapproval. Poverty became more and more associated not with widows and orphans or Appalachia, but with black city dwellers. This association was reinforced by the mass media all through the late-1960s and ’70s.

Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University, studied decades of media coverage for his book Why Americans Hate Welfare.[4] He found that up until the end of 1964, accounts of the War on Poverty were generally positive and were mostly illustrated with images of poor white people. He explains:

Starting around 1965, the discourse about the War on Poverty became much more negative, and that was for a few reasons, one of them being that programs that the administration had been promoting were now out in the field, and people, especially conservatives, were starting to take aim at them. And the media started to portray those programs much more negatively as being abused by people who didn’t really need them, as being inefficient and so on. And it’s really right at that time—and it’s a very dramatic shift in the media portrayal—that the imagery shifts from poor white people, positively portrayed, to poor black people, negatively portrayed.

The “black ghetto” became a metaphor for criminality, idle youth, teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock babies, and welfare.

THE “UNDERCLASS,” THE “CULTURE OF POVERTY,” AND “BLACK FAMILY DYSFUNCTION”

Beginning in the mid-1970s journalists, academics, and other influential voices introduced and popularized concepts that became the received wisdom when it came to the causes of poverty in the United States. Each of them set poor African American urban dwellers apart from the rest of society. In August 1977, Time published a cover story entitled, “Minority Within a Minority: The Underclass.” It began:

Behind the [ghetto’s] crumbling walls lives a large group of people who are more intractable, more socially alien and more hostile than almost anyone had imagined. They are the unreachables; the American underclass.

From this underclass, the article went on to say, came “a highly disproportionate number of the nation’s juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, drug addicts and welfare mothers, and much of the adult crime, family disruption, urban decay, and demand for social expenditures.” (Emphases added) Time’s formulation rapidly morphed into “permanent underclass” and “black underclass” and remained a staple in the mass media throughout the 1980s and 1990s. A 1986 U.S. News and World Report cover story, “A Nation Apart,” portrayed poor people of color in America’s inner cities as “a second nation…outside the economic mainstream—a separate culture of have-nots drifting further apart from the basic values of the haves.” That same year journalism professor Nicholas Lemann authored two widely read articles in The Atlantic in which he posited that the rise in out-of-wedlock births was “by far the greatest contributor to the perpetuation of the misery of ghetto life.” A year later, a prominent article in Fortune defined “underclass communities” as “urban knots that threaten to become enclaves of permanent poverty and vice.” Their “behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock birth, non-work, welfare dependence, and school failure” defined the “underclass” which was “at least as much a cultural as an economic condition.”[5] (Emphasis added)

The idea that there was a “culture of poverty” gained currency during this period. This was not a new concept. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis introduced it in his 1961 award-winning book, The Children of Sanchez, a field study that was heralded as a “watershed achievement in the study of poverty.” He followed up that book with another, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, and an influential article in Scientific American entitled simply, “The Culture of Poverty.” According to Lewis, this culture was characterized by “the lack of effective participation and integration of the poor in the major institutions of the larger society,” a distinctive family life characterized by  early initiation into sexual activity and a high incidence of abandonment of wives and children, and feelings of “marginality or helplessness, of dependence, and of inferiority.” Lewis has always maintained that his intention was not to perpetuate stereotypes or justify prejudices, but rather to shed light on intractable poverty so that conditions could be improved. Nevertheless, by the 1970s the “culture of poverty” had become a conservative concept used to further conservative social welfare policies.

Out of the urban underclass and the culture of poverty came an additional racist trope: the dysfunctional black family. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson Administration and a supporter of the War on Poverty. Drawing on the work of black sociologists E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark, his confidential report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” also known as the “Moynihan Report,” described a “cycle of poverty” and a “tangle of pathology,” which were fundamentally problems of family structure. Most troubling was the fact that “almost one-fourth of Negro families are headed by females, forcing Negro families into a ‘matriarchal structure’” and, as a consequence, a “startling increase in welfare dependency.” Based on the available evidence, he wrote, “[T]he Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling…. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”

The Moynihan Report was intended “For Official Use Only,” but it was leaked to the media and picked up by the widely syndicated conservative newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who wrote that Moynihan’s document had exposed “the breakdown of the Negro family,” with its high rates of “broken homes, illegitimacy, and female-oriented homes.” The Wall Street Journal and National Review also embraced the report. Ignoring Moynihan’s call for massive federal intervention in the labor market, they highlighted his sections on the “dysfunctional black family” to support their narrative’s emphasis on personal responsibility over government intervention.[6] The report became a string to the conservative movement’s bow.

THE RISE OF THE CONSERVATIVE NARRATIVE

During the 1960s the American conservative movement was in disarray. The stunning defeat of Barry Goldwater and his vision of small government and laissez-faire economics was a major setback for the movement. Days after the election, a small group of conservative intellectuals, including William F. Buckley, Jr., met and decided to form the American Conservative Union. One of their chief objectives was to discredit the War on Poverty. The conservative movement viewed the War on Poverty as a threat to its social philosophy based on personal responsibility; individualism; and a laissez-faire, free market economy. According to its adherents, programs for the poor might be a necessary evil at times, but they should be kept as small as possible. To challenge the War on Poverty and the values it stood for, they needed to construct a narrative that both discredited the social and economic policies enacted under its mantle and stigmatized the recipients of its programs. The tumultuous events of the late-1960s and ’70s set the stage for narrative shift.

This narrative began to be built toward racializing public assistance, and that was the key point of the transition. It was part of the tumultuous 1960s and it was fought really intensely by not just the think tanks, but by the corporations who were beginning to think that they were losing the battle big time, especially when the social programs of the Great Society came in. That’s when the alliance or fusion between the corporations and the think tanks and the conservative movement and funders, the four billionaires—John Olin, Richard Mellon Scaife, and the Koch brothers—took place.

LEE COKORINOS

The conservative narrative received a considerable lift from the state of the American economy during the mid-1970s. The fiscal crisis that drove New York City to the brink of bankruptcy was characterized by low economic growth, high unemployment, inflation, and a dramatic increase in AFDC rolls nationwide. All these factors lent support to the conservative narrative that blamed federal programs for concentrated urban poverty and economic decline. Their argument that the “welfare state” was bankrupting the country gained traction with the public.

The conservative movement was able to catalyze a backlash against the War on Poverty by tapping into this growing antipathy and anxiety and emphasizing a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. A consistent majority of Americans over time have believed that it is the responsibility of the government “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” the “truly needy.” But the same sentiment does not extend to those viewed as “lazy” and capable but unwilling to work and seeking “hand-outs.” For more than 40 years, public opinion researchers have been asking the following question: “In your opinion, which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor—lack of effort on their own part or circumstances beyond their control?” The results expose the continuing tug of war between the belief in personal responsibility and the awareness of structural barriers to opportunity, and different policy preferences flow depending on which explanation is in ascendance at any given time. The following two figures show a correlation between responses to the question and the unemployment rate: When the unemployment rate is high, more people choose “circumstances beyond their control” as the reason a person is poor.

 

Conservatives put serious resources into their narrative shift project. In his authoritative book, The Undeserving Poor, historian Michael B. Katz describes how the movement created a network of think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute, “designed to counter liberalism, disseminate conservative ideas, and promote conservative public policy.” Within a year of its founding in 1973, for example, The Heritage Foundation received grants from 87 corporations and several major foundations. Heritage and other conservative grantees published a steady stream of books and articles criticizing federal anti-poverty programs, and they invested in the aggressive marketing of their ideas. A 1997 report from The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy titled, “Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations,” observed that one of the factors accounting for the think tanks’ effectiveness in influencing public opinion was as follows:

The foundations have invested heavily in institutions and projects geared toward the marketing of conservative policy ideas. Through the provision of both general operating and project specific support, these funders have enabled policy institutions to develop aggressive marketing campaigns, media outreach efforts, and new communications tools with which to build their constituency base, mobilize public opinion and network with other organizations around a common reform agenda.

Government social welfare spending was in the crosshairs from the start. In 1984 the Manhattan Institute sponsored two books that argued for the elimination of federal anti-poverty programs: Wealth and Poverty by businessman and author George Gilder and Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 by Charles Murray, a political scientist. Gilder’s book contended that poverty was the twin result of the lack of personal responsibility and government programs that rewarded and encouraged it. Murray’s most provocative argument was that the anti-poverty programs launched by the War on Poverty were themselves responsible for continuing poverty because they discouraged work effort and promoted idleness. He called for “scrapping the entire federal welfare and income-support structure for working-aged persons, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Worker’s Compensation, subsidized housing, disability insurance and the rest.” With copious graphs and charts, Murray argued that the condition of black families in particular worsened during the 1960s; while poverty rates declined, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and youth unemployment increased, leaving the “black underclass” behind.

The Manhattan Institute sent 700 free copies of Murray’s book to influential politicians, academics, and journalists and paid for a public relations specialist to manage the “Murray Campaign.” The Institute held a seminar featuring Murray and paid participants honoraria to attend. The book was a media sensation and it set off a public debate between defenders and detractors of the War on Poverty. Losing Ground was followed by another very influential book, Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship by Lawrence Mead, a conservative political scientist. Published in 1986, Mead’s book picked up Murray’s argument and promoted the idea that welfare recipients be required to work. These books, along with a flood of materials published and distributed by conservative and libertarian think tanks, created the intellectual framework for an attack on federal anti-poverty programs in particular and “big government” in general.

Conservative think tanks featured heavily in news media coverage of poverty, with The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Manhattan Institute quoted in more than 11,000 mainstream news media articles since the late 1970s. At the core of the conservative narrative was the idea that poverty was the lot of people whose culture and behavior kept them at the bottom of society and that the “perverse incentives” of the welfare system only encouraged and deepened their misery. Conservative opinionmakers wrote and talked about “disturbing symptoms of social pathology such as crime and broken homes.” Typical of this underclass discourse was a column by neoconservative Irving Kristol that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In this piece, entitled “The Poverty of Equality,” he wrote:

In New York we have tried to abolish poverty through a generous welfare program, and while statistically lifted out of poverty, the city’s poor have simultaneously sunk to various depths of social pathology. Welfare has produced a largely demoralized population, with higher rates of crime, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and other disastrous behaviors.

These were the “undeserving poor.”

RONALD REAGAN POPULARIZES THE CONSERVATIVE NARRATIVE

Among the many conservative leaders who embraced the theses of Murray, Mead, and others was Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s opposition to social spending in general, and welfare in particular, was well known. In his 1970 California gubernatorial campaign Reagan called welfare a “costly and tragic failure” that was “destroying people, our most precious resource, by creating a permanent and growing poverty class.” During his 1976 failed candidacy for president, Reagan introduced audiences to the “welfare queen” at every campaign stop:

There’s a woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.

Attacking “welfare chiselers” was also an integral part of Reagan’s stump speech, and it resonated with voters.

As a politician, Ronald Reagan was known for his anecdotal style of speech-making and none was stickier than his story about the welfare queen.[7] As Mark Shields put it in his post-election column in the Washington Post on November 27, 1981:

More than any other modern American politician, Ronald Reagan has employed the graphic anecdote as a devastating campaign weapon. A listener could almost see the notorious Welfare Queen in her designer jeans and Mercedes Benz as candidate Reagan described her collecting nearly as much in AFDC payments as Mobil was willing to pay for Marathon Oil….The anecdotes were basic to the challenger’s basic speech, and the challenger won.

Hundreds of references to the “welfare queen” appeared in media reports about welfare fraud during the early 1980s, and the belief that “welfare cheats” and “deadbeat dads” were robbing the taxpayers gained ground. Again, this established a dynamic of racism and assumption around the profile of the “welfare queen” and the “deadbeat dad,” a set of stereotypes that have endured into modern times through cultural memes and other dominant frames.

Reagan also popularized the notion that welfare was responsible for “intergenerational poverty” and the “breakdown of the family.” In a weekly radio address in 1986 he noted that the number of illegitimate births had doubled since 1960 and that many of the mothers were teenagers. “In inner cities today,” he said, “families as we’ve thought of them are not even being formed…. [I]n some instances, you have to go back three generations before you can find an intact family… Government programs have ruptured the bonds that held families together.” This was powerful rhetoric. Reagan is justly credited with popularizing the conservative narrative that undermined support for the War on Poverty and social spending on the poor in general.

The choice of language and terminology is key in the framing and promotion of a narrative. The field of cognitive linguistics tells us that people form their views about issues based more on their values than on the facts alone. Using language that evoked the shared American value of “personal responsibility” combined with implicit appeals to racism made Reagan’s messages extremely potent. The effectiveness of Reagan’s vilification—and implied criminalization—of people who received welfare is revealed in news media data. The term “welfare queen” began to emerge in mainstream media coverage in the early 1970s. As a result of Reagan’s stump speech during the 1976 presidential campaign, references to “welfare queen” in news media began to climb, almost doubling between 1980 and 1981 when Reagan took office.[8]

Upon his election, President Reagan moved quickly to curb welfare spending. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 cut the welfare rolls by 400,000 individuals and reduced benefits for hundreds of thousands more. Federal spending on food stamps was also reduced. In his 1985 State of the Union address at the beginning of his second term, Reagan echoed the conservative narrative when he said, “Policies that increase dependency, break up families and destroy self-responsibility are not progressive…” By the late 1980s, the idea that poor people were too dependent on welfare had gone way beyond its conservative origins and had become mainstream. By 1992, 79 percent of the American public agreed with the statement, “Poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs,” and “personal responsibility” was the catchphrase of the day.

When Reagan came into office The Heritage Foundation published something called Mandate for Leadership. Mandate for Leadership took every independent agency and federal department and proposed a right-wing agenda for them. It was a 1,000-page document. Heritage provided the blueprint and they provided the transition and the leadership. They parachuted in ideological activists at the beginning of the Administration—kind of like Sherpa teams or like Special Forces teams—to transform the agencies from within and undermine the Great Society programs.

—LEE COKORINOS

“WELFARE REFORM”

Talk of reforming welfare had been abuzz well before Bill Clinton made it a centerpiece of his 1992 presidential campaign. All through the 1970s and 1980s, support grew for “workfare”—the requirement that able-bodied recipients “work off” their welfare checks. As far back as 1967 the federal government had instituted the Work Incentive Program (WIN), but in its first 20 months, only 10 percent of the cases referred for work were considered employable. This was also the experience of the bipartisan Family Support Act of 1988, which directed all the states to phase in comprehensive welfare-to-work programs by 1990. The initiative was unsuccessful, however, because states lacked the money needed for matching funds to implement education, job training, and job placement programs.

By the time of the 1992 general election campaign there was all but universal agreement that the AFDC program was broken, and Gov. Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” and the companion phrase “Two years and you’re off” had great popular appeal. As president, Clinton’s first reform proposal would have required younger welfare recipients to go to work after 2 years, but in return it guaranteed low-paid public sector or government subsidized jobs. It also provided that those who “played by the rules” but couldn’t find work could continue to receive benefits within the same needs-based framework that had existed since 1935. But the Republican sweep of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections killed any possibility that the Clinton reform bill would pass. That year, the conservative narrative achieved its goal to devalue a narrative of compassion, empowerment, and entitlement and replace it with one celebrating and emphasizing personal and individual responsibility. Henceforth that narrative would dominate the debate and would lead to a more radical reform than Clinton had originally contemplated.

Six weeks before the midterm elections, the House Republicans, then in the minority, released their 10-point “Contract with America,” which identified their legislative priorities for the first 100 days of the 104th Congress. Third on the list was the “Personal Responsibility Act”:

Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.

The Republicans were banking on the electorate’s overwhelming dislike of welfare and its acceptance of the conservative narrative. By 1994, 72 percent of the public said the system of public assistance did not work well, and 73 percent believed it discouraged people from working. Seventy-one percent believed the welfare system did more harm than good “because it encourages the breakup of the family and discourages the work ethic.”

Congressional Democrats lambasted the Personal Responsibility Act, warning that it would send more than 1 million children into poverty. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts called it “legislative child abuse,” and President Clinton vetoed two versions passed by Congress. As the 1996 presidential election loomed, Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” was still unfulfilled, and he signaled that he would sign a Senate bill that was less draconian than the House version.

Beltway pressure was building to do something, and on August 12, The New Republic published its notorious cover story urging Clinton to sign the welfare bill. It featured a picture of a black woman cradling an infant while smoking a cigarette with the words “Day of Reckoning” splashed above. The editorial inside labeled welfare “America’s gravest problem” and tapped into the racial resentment that drove much of the debate. On August 22, just months before the November election, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The new legislation replaced AFDC with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and provided block grants to the states. Lifetime benefits were limited to a maximum of 5 years, although states could set lower limits. Families had to make “verifiable efforts to leave welfare for work” and to “avoid births outside marriage.” A poll taken at the time showed that 82 percent of the public approved of the Act.

CONCLUSION

The fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014 brought forth a spate of articles and reports, some celebrating its accomplishments and others condemning its failures. President Obama said the programs it created “lived up to our best hopes as a people who value the dignity and potential of every human being.” The Heritage Foundation called it “Fifty Years of Failure.” But there is little doubt that the conservative movement was successful in popularizing a narrative that is still resonant with many Americans and that continues to pose a major obstacle to the passage of progressive social welfare policies. As Rebecca Vallas, head of the Poverty to Prosperity Program of the Center for American Progress, explains:

I think that generally when you use the word poverty most people’s minds are still going to the image shaped by the Reagan-era welfare queen. I think it’s still infused with race; I think it’s still likely to be a person of color that someone imagines. I think it’s still likely to be someone who is experiencing homelessness. And so I think that the dominant narrative about poverty continues to be that somebody who is not working and is facing some level of visible destitution. I do think that because of the success of the Fight for $15 movement and the debate over minimum wage that we are moving in a direction where the binary between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ is starting to break down and people are starting to appreciate that poverty is the result of an economy that isn’t working for everyone. But we have a lot more work to do to truly get to a place where someone’s brain immediately goes to poverty being a matter of policy choices rather than a matter of a person’s individual ‘bad choices.’

It is also the case that a powerful counternarrative is gradually taking hold in America that emphasizes the extreme economic inequality that defines the nation today. Beginning with the Occupy Wall Street movement following the 2008 economic crisis and evident in the strength and breadth of Bernie Sanders’s campaigns for president during which he popularized social democratic values, more Americans, especially younger Americans, are hewing to a structural explanation for poverty and a belief in a positive role of government. A Pew Research Center survey of members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) found that they are more likely than older generations to look to government, rather than businesses and individuals, to solve problems. Fully seven-in-10 Gen Zers say the government should do more to solve problems.[9] The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic aftermath are sure to sharpen this fundamental debate.

Request Interview Transcripts


1 In the introduction to The War on Poverty; A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980 (Eds. Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian) the editors capture the energy of the early War on Poverty: “In decaying, inner-city neighborhoods, Rust Belt towns, backwoods hollows, and Indian reservations, grassroots activists, elected officials, and social welfare professionals feverishly conceived and submitted proposals to the OEO for ‘community action’ projects. Channeling federal stipends and grants, poor men and women rehabilitated abandoned buildings and opened clinics, preschools, and community centers. Residents cleaned up neighborhood parks, planted community gardens, and renovated and reopened public swimming pools. They published community newspapers, chased drug dealers out of neighborhoods, and kept them away with resident-run anticrime patrols.”

2 The Kerner Commission, officially named the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, was appointed by President Johnson and chaired by Otto Kerner, governor of Illinois. It held public hearings throughout the country and released its comprehensive report in 1968.

3 For a historical description of how the term “ghetto” was first appropriated by African Americans to describe segregated housing and then became a pejorative racial term see Daniel B. Schwartz, “How America’s Ugly History of Segregation Changed the Meaning of the Word ‘Ghetto’” at https://time.com/5684505/ghetto-word-history/

4 Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, University of Chicago Press, 2009.

5 These articles are cited in The Undeserving Poor by Michael B. Katz, who also describes the debate over the term “the underclass” between social scientists on the left and the right.

6 The report quickly generated tremendous controversy. At the time it was criticized by civil rights leaders and supporters for blaming the victim and painting an overly negative picture of black culture. Criticism by black public figures was not universal. Sociologists Kenneth Clark and William Julius Wilson, for example, praised the report.

7 In his 2019 book, The Queen, Josh Levin shows that the “queen,” Linda Taylor, was in fact a con artist and in no way representative of AFDC recipients of that era.

8 References to “welfare queen” and other negative terms began to spike dramatically in the early 1990s and again beginning in the mid-2000s. It remains a trope referenced in media coverage of poverty, with just under 12,000 articles published between 2015 and 2019 making reference to the term or the concept of welfare fraud and dependence.

9 https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far/

Messaging Guidance for U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

Today, the United States Supreme Court took the dreaded step to overrule Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The Court has now restricted the right of hundreds of millions of Americans to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion, uprooting decades of precedent and a right upon which hundreds of thousands of Americans have relied.

While today is a tremendous setback and sad day for our country, it is important to remain vigilant in the fight for social justice and bodily autonomy when communicating about Dobbs. While it is tempting to focus only on the sadness of the day, we must stick together and clarify in our communications that we will not stop pushing forward toward justice until full rights are realized for everyone.

We recognize that this opinion not only threatens reproductive freedom for millions, but that the Court’s inconsistent contemplation of whether a right even exists could jeopardize other rights. This may include the rights of people in same-sex relationships and interracial relationships, and the right to use contraceptives. Therefore, it is critical to advance a narrative that recognizes the aspiration of full rights and justice and the inherent values at stake in this decision, including:

  • Dignity;
  • Equal Justice; and
  • Freedom

We recommend bringing a values-focused framework when talking about this issue and focusing on solutions rather than on only the problems or the sadness of the day.

Key Takeaways

Dobbs represents a fundamental threat to reproductive liberty and justice.

Dobbs allows states to take action by banning any and all access to abortion. Less than one hour after the Court announced its decision in Dobbs, the state of Missouri’s attorney general swiftly implemented that state’s abortion ban. More than 25 states will likely take action to eliminate nearly all abortion rights immediately.[1] Even outside of the states considering complete bans, abortion rights may be severely weakened.

The repercussions could mean enhanced discrimination, forcing people without economic means, especially people of color, to travel extensively outside of the state they live in to have an abortion. As a result, the poorest Americans without financial resources to travel will face the brunt of having their reproductive liberty being stripped away.

Communicate that Dobbs will have a detrimental impact on the reproductive freedom, health, and dignity of millions of people across the country – especially low-income women and people of color.

Dobbs opens the door to weaken or eliminate many other fundamental rights.

In addition to how personhood is defined and whether fetuses should have the same rights as people, there are many other implications to the Dobbs ruling. Reproductive justice is not the only right that may be impacted. The Court’s narrow construction of the right to abortion in Dobbs comes from its reliance on Washington v. Glucksberg, in which the Court reconstrues Glucksberg to narrowly evaluate whether a right is protected. It asks whether that specific right is “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” This means that instead of asking whether the right to privacy protects a specific right, courts can now ask whether that specific right, e.g. the right to buy contraception, was traditionally protected in the eighteenth century. This is a very narrow approach, which can be contrasted by the Supreme Court’s approach to marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges.

  • In Obergefell, the Court recognized a right for same-sex couples to get married and noted that the Glucksberg approach was overly narrow. It said that the proper approach is to ask whether the constitutional right to privacy meant that same-sex partners should be allowed to marry. The Court’s method for interpreting whether a right exists in Dobbs means that many other rights are at risk. This method could result in the erosion of freedoms, from the right to same-sex and interracial marriage, to the right to use contraceptives.

Right-wing activists and lawyers are already planning their assault on a broader set of rights. For example, Jonathan Mitchell, the former Solicitor General of Texas and the architect of Texas’s notorious SB-8 law, which restricts access to abortions, argued in an amicus brief that the logic to overrule Roe could be used to overrule Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges:

  • “This is not to say that the Court should announce the overruling of Lawrence and Obergefell if it decides to overrule Roe and Casey in this case. But neither should the Court hesitate to write an opinion that leaves those decisions hanging by a thread. Lawrence and Obergefell, while far less hazardous to human life, are as lawless as Roe.”[2]

The Dobbs opinion overruled a watershed precedent, weakening the Court’s legitimacy.

Dobbs overruled Roe v. Wade, which had been the law of the land for nearly 50 years. The principle of stare decisis, that a court respects and gives deference to decisions before it, is crucial in preserving the legitimacy of the Court. At his nomination hearing, Justice Alito himself stated that stare decisis was “a fundamental part of our legal system” despite his blatant disregard for the principle in Dobbs.[3]

Public polling has shown that the Court’s support dropped significantly in the wake of the leaked draft opinion of Dobbs, which greatly resembles the final version.[4]

Emphasize how the Court has significantly undermined its own legitimacy by ignoring its own precedent.

Key Questions

Some people say that this case is only about abortion and people who say otherwise are being alarmist. How should advocates respond to this?

A: It is clear that the Court could be leaving itself room to do additional harm to justice with this ruling. That’s because the approach that the Court adopted in Dobbs is an exceptionally narrow approach to analyze whether people have a right through the Constitution’s protection of substantive due process rights. This restrictive view is contrary to the approach taken in some of the Court’s most important decisions, including cases that protect the rights to same-sex marriage or the right to obtain contraception. This approach to judicial rulemaking could result in the erosion of other fundamental rights that Americans rely on every day. An expansive view of substantive due process, like the one taken in Lawrence and Obergefell, provides the most liberty and freedom for all Americans.

What about the concept of the “living Constitution”?

A: We share certain core values, but the way we express them changes as time passes. And that is what “living constitutionalism” is about — when we interpret the Constitution to include certain rights not explicitly enumerated in the document. The living constitution approach is also the dominant view throughout the world. Following a living constitution approach to Constitutional interpretation is not just popular, but will result in expanding rights and increasing opportunity for all Americans.

In fact, most Americans believe that the living constitution approach is the best way for the Supreme Court to analyze the Constitution[5] because it’s based on the idea that constitutional law grows and changes with the society within it. Sometimes, conservative thinkers acknowledge that it’s not, in fact, such a bad thing, and show how this is contrary to the constitutional conception of our nation. The idea of living constitutionalism allows our nation to continue to be governed by the people who live in it today, rather than the people who lived hundreds of years ago.

How do we stay energized and involved?

A: Despite this decision, the aspiration for justice and the world that we are trying to achieve must stay at the forefront. There are still many ways to protect abortion rights by advocating for legislation and executive orders at the state, local, and federal levels. We know from history as our guide that it takes time – sometimes generations – to achieve justice. And we must continue to put forward aspirational narratives that call for nothing short.

Check out other ways to make a difference here, here, and here.

Crafting Your Message

We recommend that you use VPSA when communicating about this issue. VPSA is a communications structure – Value, Problem, Solution, Action – that guides the creation of values-based messages that motivate audiences to action.

Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience. Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies. Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample VPSA Messages

Autonomy

VALUE

We should have control over what happens in our own lives. Autonomy means having self-directing freedom over our choices regardless of our race, sex, gender, or class.

PROBLEM

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs opinion is an affront to those freedoms. It prevents the autonomy of those with the ability to bear children, especially those from minority, marginalized, and low-income groups. The Court’s opinion permits states to infringe on the right to an abortion and destroys self-determination for those living in more than 25 states. Not only that, but the Dobbs opinion also jeopardizes other basic rights such as interracial marriage and same-sex marriage.

SOLUTION

The journey to reaching justice must continue. We have the power to encourage federal and state representatives to act, to influence public opinion and, in turn, to influence the outcome of future elections and the future makeup of the Supreme Court. We can also provide aid to organizations helping poor and marginalized communities access safe abortions.

ACTION

It is essential to use your voice and get involved to end the Court’s attack on basic human rights. Vote in every election. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of reproductive autonomy and freedom. Push your representatives for legislation and executive orders at the state, local, and federal levels.

Opportunity

VALUE

Everyone deserves equal opportunity. We must work to break down barriers that prevent equal opportunity based on race, sex, gender, and class.

PROBLEM

The Dobbs opinion destroys opportunity for those who can bear children and will hit members of the Black and brown communities hard. Dobbs astronomically increases the financial burden of obtaining an abortion. Low-income people, many of whom are Black and brown women, Black and brown transgender men, and Black and brown non-binary persons, will suffer the brunt of that blow.

SOLUTION

In light of Dobbs, we must work to decrease the financial burden of obtaining an abortion for low-income people. States and organizations with resources should support people who now need to travel out-of-state to secure their reproductive rights.

ACTION

Governments and organizations should provide travel grants and other resources so people from states with limits on abortion rights can afford the costs of travel to obtain an abortion. Individuals with the means can support organizations that do so, and can push their elected representatives to take action.


[1] https://reproductiverights.org/maps/what-if-roe-fell/.

[2] Mitchell’s Texas Right to Life Amicus Brief. https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-1392/185344/20210729162610813_Dobbs%20Amicus%20FINAL%20PDFA.pdf

[3] Stone on Roberts, Alito, and stare decisis | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[4] https://law.marquette.edu/poll/2022/05/25/supreme-court-issues-press-release/

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/11/growing-share-of-americans-say-supreme-court-should-base-its-rulings-on-what-constitution-means-today/

Taking Action & Responding to the Attacks on Honest and Inclusive Education

In Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court recognized the strong importance of education in the formation of a civic society:

[Education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

With this statement, the Court foreshadowed some of the strongest arguments for an education that provides an honest accounting of our past, including past injustices. Learning about racism and the triumphs of civil rights activists instills in students the cultural values of freedom, justice, and progress. Learning about racial differences also prepares students for the professional world, where they will encounter and work with people of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, learning about racial differences, racism, and historical events prepares students to engage in political and civic life with a deeper understanding of themselves and those around them.

The current attempts to prevent the discussion and examination of our history and the legacy of racial inequality threaten the values named by the Brown court, weakening students’ abilities to succeed professionally and engage politically and civically. This tool provides guidance for responding to the attacks on critical race theory and for building a narrative that advances an honest and inclusive education.

Building a Narrative to Support Honest, Inclusive, and Diverse Education

There are several key points to keep in mind when advocating for an inclusive and honest education:

1. Define what critical race theory is. Many people, including progressives, are hesitant to use the term critical race theory. They worry that conservatives have made it too divisive. However, preliminary research shows that more Americans support critical race theory than oppose it, and that many are simply undecided about it. Research also suggests that when some audiences are told that it is a tool for analyzing and understanding racism, they are more likely to support it. Conservatives have been defining their attacks on honest and inclusive education by focusing on critical race theory, and progressives should respond to these attacks directly.

2. Emphasize the need for education to go further. One of the strengths of this country is its diversity, and today’s schoolchildren will be adults in an increasingly diverse society. Teaching students about diverse perspectives will help them grow into engaged, informed, and empathetic adults. The education system should be doing more to prepare students for this future and to inform them about the lingering effects of racial inequality in this country, so they can address these harms. Rather than respond to attacks on critical race theory by stating that it’s not taught in K-12 schools (which is true), build a narrative for why it and other tools for providing race conscious education should be adopted in all our schools.

3. Appeal to shared values. Research shows that people are more open to different, unfamiliar arguments when these arguments are framed by common values. In fact, appealing to values and beliefs is often more effective than statistics in combatting misinformation.[1] When crafting ways to respond to politicians trying to politicize education, you will need to interrogate the intentions and values that lie behind the myths being spread about CRT and anti-racism education in classrooms. In this memo, we have identified several fundamental American values that are shared by most people across the political spectrum and that are served by teaching CRT and systemic racism in schools.

4. Don’t “myth-bust.” Research shows that myth-busting, or restating a claim just to “debunk” it or explain why it is not true, is ineffective in persuading people to change their minds about a topic. In fact, stating a false fact actually encourages people to misremember the false statement as fact—even days later and if they were repeatedly told the statement was false.[2] So, instead of myth-busting, just affirmatively state the truth. Affirmative statements will always be more powerful and memorable than defensive statements. When you engage in conversation with an opponent of CRT, you may feel like you are fighting an uphill battle, so you should use you best weapon: truthful affirmative statements.

5. Explain how learning about our past leads to progress. An honest and inclusive education will help students learn from our past mistakes as a country, so we can build a better future. While we have come far, we have further to go in order to reach our ideals as a country.

6. Use storytelling. Storytelling is an effective tool for persuasion and as a means of confronting racism and the status quo. “Counterstories,” or the stories of people from groups that have historically been marginalized, can be used to effectively challenge perceptions.[3] Effective, powerful counterstories do the following:

  • Use narrative — everyone loves a good, engaging story!
  • Encourage the listener to see things from the storyteller’s point of view. The listener should be pushed, by the end of the story, to compare their beliefs and their reality to the experiences of the storyteller or the counterstory’s characters.
  • Challenge mindsets, not individuals.
  • Use generalizations and exaggerations to highlight key points.[4]

7. Don’t make parents and teachers who oppose critical race theory into villains. Instead, emphasize how politicians are sowing divisions in our communities. Politicians and outside actors initiated the advocacy against an honest and inclusive education and spread misinformation to parents and community members. They should be the focus of communications on this issue.

8. Use VPSA when communicating about this issue. VPSA is a communications structure – Value, Problem, Solution, Action – that guides the creation of values-based messages that motivate audiences to action.

Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience. Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies. Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample VPSA Messages

Sample Message 1

Value: America was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. As Americans, it is important that fairness and equality are viewed as a central part of the American experience for everyone, and this includes the American legal system.

Problem: In order to uphold one of the founding principles in America, the legal system should be expected to deliver fair and equal results to all people. Decisions within the American legal system, from prosecutorial discretion to sentencing, have racial disparities. These racial disparities create additional divisiveness within the country.

Solution: Schools should embrace a curriculum that acknowledges that we have fallen short but remain committed to making racial progress.

Action: Share your views at events as small as school board meetings, to local or city council meetings, to calling state and federal officials and representatives, to voting in local, state, and federal elections. Make it known that you support equality and fairness in America.

Sample Message 2

Value: American society thrives when we acknowledge and grow from the challenges and conflicts of past generations.

Problem: Unfortunately, many states and school districts have been pushed to ban discussion on certain aspects of our shared history in schools. Topics of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement are under attack.

Solution: Learning, accepting, and growing from our shared history is important in ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of our past, and can work to remedy issues in our current era. These efforts to ban discussion in schools are un-American and must be stopped.

Action: You can be a part of protecting our history and preserving the ability of students to learn from it in its entirety, with both the good and the bad. Speak up against disinformation in your community, engage in your local school board meetings, and push back against efforts to muzzle our teachers.

Sample Message 3

Value: America is built on two major values—freedom and liberty. The respect and protection of the fundamental civil rights of all American citizens are core to our values and beliefs as a country. The protection of every American citizen’s right to be free from discrimination allows all Americans to preserve their freedom and liberty; these are two tenets that serve as the foundation of American ideals. Furthermore, in pursuit of freedom, American citizens are also guaranteed a right to free speech and the right to petition the government to address their grievances.

Problem: However, this freedom is at risk when topics and events that actually occurred are prevented from being taught in the classroom. This freedom is further jeopardized for students of color who must weigh the benefits and risks of participating in the classroom. When we have members of society who feel like their voices are not as important, then our entire democracy is at risk.

Solution: Race conscious education provides the language to allow all Americans to be able to speak about issues of race, providing a common foundation for the preservation of the right to free speech. It also provides students of color with the opportunity to “challeng[e] the status quo of racial inequality that has persisted for far too long in this nation…” [5]

Action: Reach out to local decision makers and inform them of the importance of CRT to students’ civil rights. If your state legislature, city council, or local school board are considering a ban on race conscious education, consider making a call, sending an email or letter to your representative describing your support for inclusive and diverse education. Attend school board or city council meetings and speak on the topic directly. Encourage friends, family, and members of the community to do the same. Communicating support—especially in large numbers—for the positive implications of honest and inclusive education for civil rights can help key decision makers understand what is at stake.


Special thanks to those who contributed to the research, analysis, review, and editing of this report, especially the students in I. India Thusi’s Fall 2021 Critical Race Theory seminar at Indiana University Maurer School of Law: Abby Akrong, Ethan Dawson, Erin Deckard, Rebeca Dorantes, Mary Kate Dugan, Lydia Elmer, Erica Fields, Kat Grant, Zoe Kolender, Emily McConville, Celia Meredith, Zoe Morgan, Kelsey Napier, Gabriel Retz, Maddie Satterly, Lainey Sezer, Hadley Smithhisler, Luke Steffe.


[1] Simon Oxxenham, When Evidence Backfires, Big Think (Apr. 15, 2014), https://bigthink.com/articles/when-evidence-backfires/.

[2] ‘See e.g., Ian Skurnik, Carolyn Yoon, Denise C. Park & Norbert Schwarz, How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations, 31 J. Consumer Rsch. 713, 718 (2005).

[3] Richard Delgado, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others, in Critical race theory, supra note 8, at 71–72.

[4] Id. at 79

[5] Janel George, A Lesson On Critical Race Theory, ABA (January 11, 2021), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/.

Six Tips for Responding to White Supremacist Terrorism

This past weekend, communities in Buffalo, and across the nation, were once again horrified and devastated by the ugly face of white supremacist terrorism. As people who work every day to build safe and more equitable communities, our hearts break for the 10 lives which were taken from our world and their loved ones.

White supremacy relies on violence, terrorism, and rationalization to survive. The killing of Black people in Buffalo and the recent shootings at Asian-run businesses in Dallas, remind us that confronting white supremacist violence is urgent. Buffalo, Atlanta, El Paso, Charleston, and countless other cities have seen racist, hate-driven violence strike at the heart of communities of color. Behind all of these attacks is incendiary right-wing rhetoric which too many advertisers, media personalities, politicians, tech companies, and community leaders have chosen to support. Only by working for a more just, equitable, and peaceful future can we hope to foster a safe environment for all communities.

Below are some messaging tips on how to facilitate a meaningful conversation about safety, community, and education in the wake of the white supremacist terrorism in Buffalo.

1. Create Space for the Pain and Trauma that People Are Feeling

May 14th was a traumatic moment for the people in Buffalo and all of us who can picture ourselves in their shoes. It is critical that we set aside space to acknowledge the pain that many people are feeling in the wake of this calculated violence. On Saturday, people just went grocery shopping and, because of white supremacist terrorism, that sense of normalcy was shattered.

Take a moment, and set space for people to grieve and process through this traumatic event. It is important to acknowledge the pain that hate crimes have caused across the country and how communities are still trying to navigate that trauma.

2. Frame the Conversation around Safety for BIPOC Communities

Conversations about safety which follow tragic events frequently include proposals for policy change – like further militarizing police forces – that, actually, create less safety for BIPOC communities. It is because of this that we must keep the vision of true safety for BIPOC communities at the heart of our work. After a white supremacist terrorist shot Asian-Americans in Atlanta, we developed Five Tips for Talking about Anti-Asian Racism and, in that piece, we recommend starting “our communications with a shared vision of what our country should be: a safe, inclusive place of participation and belonging where everyone’s rights are protected and respected, we can frame anything that gets in the way of that as a pressing issue.” In many cases, this includes adopting community-based responses that prioritize safety with community resources rather than relying exclusively on police or punitive measures.

3. The Importance of Supporting Community Based Solutions

The attack on Tops Friendly Markets supermarket in Buffalo, New York, has caused immeasurable harm, exacerbated food insecurity, and created significant trauma. In order to emerge from this act of terrorism stronger than before, we must emphasize investing in community-based organizations, services, and support programs. A number of organizations have compiled resources that you can access here and here. On top of this, support local efforts for recovery and create policies at home which will strengthen the communities in which you live.

4. Have an Honest Conversation about the Impact of White Supremacy in the U.S. and Take Action to Overcome It

We stand at a crossroads. In one direction, stands the history that has been told to us for generations, which ignores the role that white supremacy has played in our country and the violence that has been enacted for the sake of preserving white supremacist power. In the other direction, stands the honest history of the United States, which acknowledges the impact of white supremacy in perpetuating violence against communities of color. As we noted in our messaging memo, Talking About Attacks on Critical Race Theory, it is critical that we “remind audiences that banning education about our racial history, which these bans on ‘critical race theory’ seek to do, undermine our efforts to promote shared values like equal justice, honesty, opportunity, and basic compassion.”

5. Call it What it is – Racism

These white supremacist attacks are racist, not racially motivated nor racially charged. The perpetrators are also racists, not “lone wolves.” They were not only driven by their own hatred, but activated by a host of other racists, supported by racist institutions, and enabled by racist companies and spaces.

6. Use VPSA Messaging to Develop the Shared Vision

Using the Value, Problem, Solution and Action Framework, you can draft your own response to this act of white supremacist terrorism in a way that acknowledges our shared values and helps your audience overcome the fatigue often created by such a significant problem. In this case, we recommend centering Safety, Community, and Inclusivity. Example:

Value: True community safety means that everyone can shop, pray, drive, and engage in everyday activities without the fear of violence.

Problem: Incendiary far-right rhetoric has once again resulted in white supremacist violence.

Solution: As we mourn, communities everywhere can come together to declare zero tolerance for white supremacist hate and channel that declaration into replacing policies which uphold white supremacy with policies which support true safety and equity for all.

Action: Communities across the nation can take action at home to dismantle policies which uphold white supremacy and call on advertisers, donors and political leaders to also reject right wing incendiary rhetoric.

Power of Pop: What TV Gets Wrong About Getting By

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In The Opportunity Agenda’s Power of POP research series, we explore the impacts of pop culture vis-à-vis scripted television[1] and influencers[2] on social issues. The subject matter we address is related to our work in economic opportunity, immigration, racial justice, and democracy. By considering the leading social issues of the time within a framework of new, values-based narrative goals, we engage in study that we hope bolsters discourse.

We are currently living through a global reckoning on workers’ rights, corporate greed, and economic justice. Across the headlines, we see examples of workers, from John Deere to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), who are organizing and striking against exploitative corporate practices that leave them unable to maintain a cost of living or receive adequate health care and workers’ compensation. This developing narrative around what employment should look like in a post-COVID, worker-centered world is also being captured in the scripted works airing on television to mass appeal. In fact, one of the breakout hits of 2021, Squid Game, centers on a character who is traumatized by his experience in a work strike turned violent by company owners and law enforcement—reminiscent of the real-world strike of SsangYong Motor in 2009.[3]

As a continuation of The Opportunity Agenda’s Power of POP series, the focus of this report draws from the cultural moment in its aim to gain a comprehensive understanding of the portrayals of income differences within streamed and broadcasted television shows. We engaged in thorough television content analysis by designing a codebook, examining broadcasted and streamed television programs, and analyzing the data gathered. The research outlined within this report examines the representation and dominant storylines associated with household income, quality of life, and the culture surrounding different income levels within popular television programs during the Fall 2017 to Spring 2018 television season.

With about one in seven Americans projected to have annual family resources below the poverty threshold and the projected poverty rate in 2021 being similar to the one from 2018 (13.7%), understanding the plight of low-income households is as important as ever. Although 4.4% of people live in deep poverty in the United States, 45% of households subsist on resources no more than twice the poverty threshold. This holds true for Black and Hispanic people whose rates of poverty—18.1% and 21.9%, respectively—are nearly twice as high as their white peers. Most of these families are projected to have fallen from above to below the poverty threshold due to job loss—a major occurrence with the onset of COVID-19 in the United States.[4] It is in this economic landscape that people look for representation in the media they consume of the issues people face every day.

The television analysis in this report is based on content analysis of 105 randomly sampled television episodes from popular television shows aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming services divided into 70 episodes reflecting the gamut of shows available during the Fall 2017 to Spring 2018 season, and an additional 35 episodes reflecting low-wage workers from this same period based on online episode descriptions. More than 1,200 codes were analyzed by variables including demographic details such as race/ethnicity, gender, and income, as well as observance of lack of social safety net, use of social services, or other indicators of financial hardship. The codebook dictionary and a sample of the completed codebook are available in the addendum of this report.

 

 

This report is intended to offer advocates, activists, entertainment executives and creatives, media commentators, and media literacy promoters a more holistic understanding of the dominant media narratives while adding a strong voice to a growing canon of study on the impacts of media representation on narratives about directly impacted populations. This report also offers guidance and tips for improving the portrayal of working class and lower income families in popular entertainment and best practices for using popular culture to advance a social justice cause and engage new audiences.

 

KEY FINDINGS

Dominant Storylines and Themes Associated with Income and/or Its Disparity

  • Entertainment, as exemplified by these episodes, further plays into the comparative nature of finding the affluent aspirational and the poor as unfortunate.

 

 

  • Each television show avoids discussion of the precarious nature of meeting daily expenses—such as the ability to pay for utilities, phones, food, and other essentials—for those working with a low income.

We posit that this absence contributes to the culture of poverty narrative wherein stigma associated with asking for assistance when faced with obstacles to survival leads those impacted to be ashamed for shortcomings associated with the “bootstrap” narrative rather than holding the systems that deny them access to adequate housing or food.

  • Health care is the leading issue used by shows within the study to garner discussions about how low-wage workers are impacted by their lack of safety net. Regardless of whether white or Black, Indigenous, People Of Color (BIPOC) characters drive the story, it’s their personal flaws—not societal ones—that land them in financially precarious circumstances.

 

Working Class and Lower Income Character Representation

  • Characters from the 2017–2018 season of television in the United States were significantly less likely to represent household incomes lower than $41,000 than any higher income.
  • Low-wage workers tend to be centered as lead characters in comedic television shows, but not as much in other genres.
  • There is an overrepresentation of white and upper-middle to high-income characters that leaves a void in representation for BIPOC families of low means.
  • This is pressing in a nation consistently moving toward greater economic disparity, which is felt most drastically by the most marginalized.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

If you are creating messages about economic justice issues in your advocacy work…

Know that many of your audiences are viewing incomplete and unbalanced portrayals of people with low incomes. And there are almost no portrayals of people experiencing poverty. The narratives available to audiences reveal few solutions to economic instability or poverty. At the same time, audiences are seeing that most people’s basic needs are being met with a few scattered examples of true need. It is therefore important to start communications about economic justice with some context and big-picture thinking. Without doing so, we risk our solutions seeming unnecessary or even just strange.

Fill in the gaps by providing a larger vision of what the world could look like if we had real solutions in place. Show how that world would better align with your audience’s core values. They are not seeing much of this type of expansive thinking in current TV, so we can step in and provide this big picture thinking, embracing themes like abundance, community, shared responsibility, and opportunity for all.

Frame the problem systemically. It is important to link personal stories to widespread problems, point to the systemic cause, and then move to the systemic solution. Fictional portrayals of any issue are almost always going to focus on an individual character. Watching those portrayals, as well as typical media coverage, can lead audiences to a very individualistic mindset that assumes if the problem is with the individual, so is the solution. By expanding audience’s understanding of the problem and linking a character’s challenge to the many other people experiencing that challenge, we can move them to understand the systemic solutions better.

Center solutions. None of the shows we sampled portrayed systemic solutions, such as how safety net programs can alleviate economic instability, how unions protect workers, or how paid family and medical leave make it possible for families to provide for their children. Leveraging storylines can help to spotlight problems, but economic justice communicators will need to bring the solutions to the table. When solutions are left out, audiences are likely to fall into the trap of thinking that poverty, income disparities, and other barriers to economic justice are inevitable.

 

If you want to leverage popular television to highlight economic justice issues…

Use storylines and characters to make a point. While they are few and far between—so much so that many did not show up in our sample—some portrayals of economic injustice and solutions to it do exist. Later seasons of Superstore focused on issues such as paid family and medical leave, healthcare expenses, and labor organizing, for instance. Talking about these issues through the lens of popular TV offers an opportunity to showcase solutions in a more interesting and unexpected way than fact sheets or tweets about legislation can.

It’s also true that centering popular characters’ experiences can help build an emotional understanding and connection to your issue. Research has shown that we develop parasocial relationships with characters we regularly watch on television, identifying them (in our brains) as friends of sorts. So, talking to some audiences about the economic experiences of Amy from Superstore, for instance, could help them see those experiences in a new light and likely with more empathy. As with any individual storytelling, however, doing this needs to be balanced with other kinds of stories that broaden the focus so that audiences aren’t just focused on that individual’s plight, strengths, and weaknesses.

Highlight shows that showcase themes like community care, abundance, and even joy, in addition to those that provide portrayals of economic injustice. While more recent releases such as Netflix’s Maid and Squid Game provide some of the low-income character representation we would like to see more of, audience appreciation for Ted Lasso—a show equally about rich people and being a person who cares for others—shows that audiences are primed for more representation of community care. By building upon the abundance narrative over scarcity, creators can build worlds that show how communities support their own with love, care, and joy, bringing this positive energy into their advocacy for a better life for everyone. ABC’s upcoming television show Abbott Elementary appears to be a potential example of what the integration of community care, Black joy, and advocacy for better financial support can look like on television.

Monitor shows that offer opportunities to spark conversation about income inequality or instability. To keep up with opportunities to leverage relevant plotlines, formally select a few shows that appeal to your target audience and follow them. Watching whole episodes is not even necessary as there are many recaps available online on sites such as Vulture, EW online, and ShowSnob.

Choose your timing carefully. On the one hand, things move quickly online and issues come in and out of focus at a rapid pace. It is typically a good idea to respond within a 48-hour window for simple social media engagement and within a week for more detailed media pieces. On the other hand, social media engagement with television content spikes significantly at certain points within a show’s schedule. For series that consistently engage in narratives about poverty and economic instability, look for opportunities such as premieres and finales. Significant episodes and major award shows also draw significant audiences. Use these moments to live tweet, host a Twitter chat, or host an online watch party.

 

If you want to influence portrayals of income instability and poverty…

Give positive reinforcement for good portrayals. This could be as simple as encouraging fans to thank show writers and networks for an authentic character or storyline via social media. Or, you could create an award to the networks or individuals using their platforms to tell compelling stories about people with low incomes or that promote a social justice narrative. Positive reinforcement is a good place to start to both encourage good storytelling and lay the foundation for relationships with creators.

Create your own hashtags or memes to draw attention to representations. For example, #StarringJohnCho memes went viral as people photoshopped John Cho into famous movie posters that starred white male actors, creatively criticizing the lack of diversity in Hollywood. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was started by April Reign to raise the same issue and sparked a national debate that resulted in changes in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Engage progressive fandoms. Find the online communities of popular shows where fans are already gathering to talk about them. Create toolkits or messaging guides around a particular series to spark fan engagement.

Encourage networks to engage with and hire people who have experienced economic instability. We need more stories centered on low-income characters written by people who have lived through poverty for prolonged periods. This is particularly true for houseless representation and should be a component for any creative work related to this issue, whether it is a television program or advocacy campaign. Directly affected writers can bring their lived experiences to light in a way that helps us move from a voyeuristic, socially distanced interaction to one of better relatability and nuanced understanding. After all, if the producers and writers of Modern Family and Maid can bring their personal issues into scriptwriting, why can the same not become true for character portrayals unseen in other recent television shows?

Build relationships with script writers, producers, and show runners. Introduce script writers, producers, and show runners to stories that not only are personal and compelling but also are diverse and affirmative and more fully depict the experience of people living in economic instability. Note that to be effective, this strategy may require more significant long-term investments in both time and resources.

 

If you want to add positive portrayals to the mix…

Rewrite shows or plots to show how they could tell a fuller story of economic insecurity and what we can all do about it. You can use social media to spread your ideas about what popular TV could look like in this regard. To do this, put yourself in the shoes of a Hollywood writer who wanted to ethically depict characters experiencing poverty and imagine what they would come up with. You can also engage in a “what if?” exercise online, inviting your audience to help fill in how a show could depict the low-income experience more realistically and compassionately. Or suggest a whole new TV show that would accurately show the causes and solutions to poverty.

Partner with artists and creatives to tell new stories about economic instability and poverty. Artists should be included in strategic conversations early because their perspectives often lead to out-of-the-box innovations. Just like graphic designers, researchers, or anyone else with a specialized skillset you wouldn’t ask to work for free, keep in mind that artists should also be paid. Consider budgeting ahead of time to be able to include their talents.

Produce your own content. Creating your own content is now more accessible than ever. Creatives with limited resources are making use of content-sharing platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and SoundCloud and crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter to launch independent projects and tell otherwise untold stories. Videos, web series, and podcasts are within reach, although we recommend partnering with a creative that is skilled at storytelling in your chosen format to maximize the impact.

 

If you want to help audiences become educated consumers of entertainment and other media…

Organize watch parties and discussion groups. Assemble around helpful, harmful, and nuanced portrayals.

Provide guides. Develop study guides and curricula that help support young people to become more educated consumers of entertainment and other media.

Make your organization a resource. Offer cultural critiques of select shows on a regular basis. Pitch yourself as a resource to media who cover pop culture and are interested in how portrayals interact with real-life experiences.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The Opportunity Agenda wishes to thank and acknowledge the many people who contributed their time, energy, and expertise to the research and writing of this report. The report was researched and written by Porshea Patterson-Hurst, Charles Sherman, Wendy Li, and Wesley Huang, with guidance and editing from Adam Luna, Julie Fisher-Rowe, Elizabeth Johnsen, and Lucy Odigie-Turley of The Opportunity Agenda. The illustrations were created by Justin Nguyen of Yellow Panda and the design and layout were completed by Lorissa Shepstone, Being Wicked. Final proofing and copy editing were conducted by Margo Harris. Special thanks to Brian Erickson, Christiaan Perez, and J. Rachel Reyes for outreach and distribution coordination. Additional thanks to Caty Borum-Chattoo of American University and Josh Gwin of Marion Polk Food Share for field knowledge.

This report and the work of The Opportunity Agenda are made possible with funding from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The JPB Foundation, The Libra Foundation, The Marguerite Casey Foundation, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, NEO Philanthropy, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Tow Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, and Wellspring Philanthropic Fund and would not be possible without the contributions of time, treasure, and talent from our many supporters.

 

ABOUT THE OPPORTUNITY AGENDA

The Opportunity Agenda was founded in 2006 with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. Focused on moving hearts, minds, and policy over time, the organization works with social justice groups, leaders, and movements to advance solutions that expand opportunity for everyone. Through active partnerships, The Opportunity Agenda synthesizes and translates research on barriers to opportunity and corresponding solutions, uses communications and media to understand and influence public opinion, and identifies and advocates for policies that improve people’s lives.

 


1 https://opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/power-pop

2 https://opportunityagenda.org/explore/insights/more-just-fad-power-cultural-influencer

3 https://jacobinmag.com/2021/11/squid-game-ssangyong-dragon-motor-strike-south-korea/

4 https://www.urban.org/research/publication/2021-poverty-projections

Methodology

​TELEVISION CONTENT ANALYSIS

The television analysis in this report is based on content analysis of 105 randomly sampled television episodes from popular television shows aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming services divided into 70 episodes reflect-ing the gamut of shows available during the Fall 2017 to Spring 2018 season and an additional 35 episodes reflecting low-wage workers from this same period.

For the purpose of this study, popular television shows were defined as shows that attracted a large general audience when originally aired on broadcast and cable networks in the United States and/or shows that were ranked high on Parrot Analytics’—the singular source compiling international demand for streaming plat-forms—The Global Television Demand Report: Full Year 2018.[5] In an effort to better capture these emergent consumer habits, our population of popular television shows was generated using a combination of traditional rating metrics from consumer habits research firm Nielsen[6]  and viewership measurements compiled in the Global Television Demand Report.

After compiling a sample reflective of the most in-demand shows, we utilized the Microsoft Excel function RANDBETWEEN to select the first 40 episodes. To remain consistent in the manner of sample selection within the Power of POP series, we made use of Research Randomizer, an online random sampling tool, to generate a random number sequence to the remaining episodes for in-depth content analysis.

SAMPLE

The 105 episodes included in our random sample include 44 comedies, 15 action shows, 16 dramas, 14 crime shows, six comedy-dramas, three science-fiction shows, two mysteries, two horror-dramas, one action drama, one reality television show, and one comedic crime drama. Forty-one shows aired on broadcast television (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CW), two were aired on cable television (AMC and Showtime), and 11 originally aired on streaming services (Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Hulu, and Netflix).

Part of the overall sample includes 35 episodes selected based on the marketing of certain shows portraying the experiences of low-wage to working-class characters. A brief list of these shows was compiled, and the randomizer tool mentioned above selected episodes from the following programs: Bob’s Burgers, Mom, On My Block, Orange Is the New Black, Roseanne, Shameless, Sneaky Pete, Speechless, Superior Donuts, Superstore, and The Middle.

CODING & TERMINOLOGY

To ensure inter-coder reliability,[7] the coding team created and then trained using a project codebook (see Appendix I), which established guidelines for the specific episodic and character variables to be analyzed. The codebook includes 12 episode variables, including genre, tone, and depiction of low-income lifestyle, and 27 character variables used to identify the likely income of a character. To ensure more accurate character counts per episode, we made use of both coder notes and IMDb databases. In the coding of episodes, a low-income character was defined as any person working in a position whose pay fell within Pew Research Center’s definition for low-wage work (below or at $40,100 per year).[8] Middle-income characters were defined as those who made between $41,000 and $120,400 per year, and high-income characters earned more than $120,400 per year. Using Glassdoor, coders used character job roles and location to define their yearly income expectancy.

In addition to the wage observation, the following qualitative criteria were used to identify characters working for low wages:

An explicit reference was made to a character’s low-income or working-class status in the context of the show or storyline.

Particular social markers were used by show creators to implicitly signify low-income characters. Signifiers identified include poor or insufficient housing, food insecurity or scar-city, lack of social safety net when confronting money insecurity, and dependence on social programs.

LIMITATIONS

The goal of this research is to provide insights into patterns of representation in popular television shows and the potential use of these representations to mobilize audiences. As such, this research makes use of both qualitative and quantitative content analysis methods. However, because of the relatively small sample size compared to the overall population, it is important to note limitations in the generalizability of our research findings. In future studies, we aim to analyze a larger sample size, including a survey of the impact of these representations on the directly impacted.

Because streaming platforms are constantly changing contracts and provision of different TV series, we are only able to document the streaming services utilized in our development of the study. For instance, while Superior Donuts may be available on the Paramount Network in 2021, we notated usage of Amazon Prime to gain access to the episode during the timeline of our study within the codebook.

Episodes included in this study were the result of random selection, which means background information about show premise or characters was not strictly observed. Therefore, some of the information collected may miss de-tails that only long-time consumers of a program would know. Where possible, the coders relied on search engines for each program to clarify details like job titles during the season, utilizing fan encyclopedia websites when necessary. All levels of education not stipulated on the screen were instead determined by minimum job requirements

Character Representation

FREQUENCY OF LOW-INCOME CHARACTER REPRESENTATION

With the median U.S. household income in 2017 being $62,626 and more than 50% of the U.S. population falling below or at this income, we hypothesized that a significant amount of television episodes would reflect this level of income distribution. However, in our analysis of more than 100 randomly selected TV episodes from the 2017–2018 season, we found that the lower brackets of income were underrepresented in favor of overrepresentation of middle to upper-middle income households.[9]

While there was an abundance of representation for middle-income individuals within our sample (indeed, most characters in this study represent this social stratum at 54%), we found that most of the characters from our sample fell on the higher side of the middle-class range, which includes those making incomes from $41K to $120K.[10]

Within the select sample of 35 episodes specifically centered on low- and lower-middle wage workers, characters held a range of low-paying job roles, including handyman, health inspector, mechanic, speech aide, bail bondsperson, server, and big box store associate. A not insignificant amount of the job roles captured had a pattern of being elevated in pay based on the minimum level of education required to fill the job role. However, investigator and detective pay, in particular, seemed to have no cumulative tie to higher education requirements and was the most consistent job role within the dataset to be ascribed a level of pay within the $100K+ pay range.

No significant disparity among income level was found within demographics. Actors with perceived male – Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB) – or female gender assignment at birth (AFAB)[12] had near equal representation within each income level. AFAB characters made up approximately 42% of the characters studied, whereas AMAB represent 54%.[13] With a ratio of 3:4 where for every three AFAB characters there are four AMAB characters, representation is relatively constant across the board. That is not to say that the ±6% of characters are not indicative for change in this area. Within an entire sample of more than 1,200 codes, there are only two examples of gender nonbinary characters and there is still much to be done on better inclusion of AFAB characters as a whole.

Relative to income representation, 10% of AFAB characters qualified as low income to AMAB’s 11%. Middle income has a greater difference in gender disparity, with AFAB characters yielding on 21% to AMAB characters 31%. Parity for high-income characters shows AFAB characters make up 10% of these characters, while AMAB characters represent 13% of those observed.

Similar relationships can be found in racial representation within the study, with the caveat that there was absolutely no representation of Indigenous American or Native characters within the episodes watched.[14] White characters make up the majority of character representation, consisting of 65% of characters in the study. Meanwhile, Asian (5%), Black (16%), Hispanic (6%), and Other (6%) occupy significantly less space within the shows sampled. For additional details about this dynamic and the level of representation within key vs. recurring roles, please see Breaking Down Portrayed Income.


9 Explore this in greater detail within, “Breaking Down Portrayed Income,” of this report.

10 Explore this in greater detail within, “Breaking Down Portrayed Income,” of this report.

11 Explore this in greater detail within, “Breaking Down Portrayed Income,” of this report.

12 These terms used to best encapsulate gender nonbinary individuals and those with undisclosed gender designation and reflect the ways genders exist beyond binary observation.

13 The 4% not accounted for here represent missing data within the dataset.

14 At least none of the characters identified themselves as such.

Dominant Storylines & Themes

This section provides an overview of the dominant genres, storylines, and themes associated with low-income characters and the lifestyles of characters making  low wages more broadly. As the graph below attests, character representation among those making this level of income is not widely covered in most genres. One genre does reign supreme, however, dominating representation of low-wage workers and their strife. That genre? Comedy.

As a quote attributed to Mindy Greenstein goes: “Comedy is not the opposite of darkness, but its natural bedfellow. Pain makes laughter necessary; laughter makes pain tolerable.”

This concept seems to generate a great deal of steam within the television industry, as each of the shows focused on characters receiving low income within this study fall under the comedy genre—51 out of the 105 episodes in this sample are some form of comedy. Even the grittier, cross-genre (i.e., critically listed as comedy-dramas) shows like On My Block, Orange Is the New Black, and Shameless make sure to include the absurd and darkly comedic sides of their stories in each episode. For instance, in the Shameless episode “A Gallagher Pedicure,” Debbie Gallagher suffers a foot injury while training as a welder. Because she is a student without healthcare coverage and used to less ethical work-arounds to major issues in her life, she asks her middle school–aged brother to ply off the dead toes as she has no means to afford the surgery the doctor told her she needed.

In fact, most of the examples we found of characters confronting an issue without  enough money to cover a direct need centered around medical care. On the “Health Fund” episode of Superstore, the health concerns of various staff members are confronted when Mateo discusses his inability to see a doctor for his ear infection due to a lack of health coverage and his undocumented status. He, too, resorts to using nonmedical means of recovery, despite the mutual aid fund concept that floats around during the episode. The episode ends by touching upon the real-world similarity to Walmart’s infamous canned food drive for its own employees[15] by having Mateo’s co-workers chip in one hundred dollars for a cure. Yet even this show of goodwill is twisted when he announces that he will instead use it to purchase a bag, possibly highlighting the fickleness of capitalistic interest versus self-care, as one hundred dollars is likely to cover more expense for a low-end designer bag than it ever would in the costs of healthcare coverage.

THEME: BROKE CULTURE

Comparative experiences between keeping up appearances and satisfying an actual need is yet another storyline that occurs in many of the episodes that cover low- or low-middle income characters. Episodes “Please Don’t Feed the Hecks” and “Thanksgiving IX” of The Middle show the upwardly mobile Hecks family working through their moments of “brokeness” despite generating enough household income to have sent two of their children to college. In “Please Don’t Feed the Hecks,” Sue, a sophomore in college, and her best friend/roommate Lexie are forced to live in Lexie’s car for a few nights due to the people they’d sublet their apartment to during the summer renting their place out as an Airbnb. They are stymied from booting the Airbnb renter out themselves because Sue is conflicted about getting into the good graces of the professor who is renting their place. By the end of the episode, they are back in their apartment and their brief experience with houselessness is little more than an anecdote.

The Hecks family continues to show that their proximity to being broke is relative in the “Thanksgiving IX” of The Middle. At the beginning of this episode the father, Mike, disputes a charge that he later finds out was his wife treating herself to a coffee. When the company shuts down usage of the card because of the claim, the family trip to a relative’s house for the holiday is put into turmoil. They run out of gas on the drive to the relative’s house and have no cash or other means to pay for or borrow the money they need to return to the road without the credit card they usually rely on. It is by their daughter Sue’s ethically unclear ingenuity to take money from the water fountain of a nearby mall that they are able to get on the road again.

Outside of these circumstances, we ran into no storylines centered around characters struggling for an immediate need. As with the cases exemplified by The Middle, being broke is often related to the level of means available to any character at any given period of time rather than a fear of having actual utilities or other needs cut off. In fact, we found few episodes even mentioned a concern for food or shelter. When adjusting for the household income, we find that each parent—Frankie and Mike—bring in around $65,000 annually, which is later upgraded when Mike receives a promotion toward the end of the series, now making $74,975—an estimate we deduced from Glassdoor averages for this job title in the character’s home location. This is in addition to knowledge that they could afford sending their first child to college and business school and sell ownership in a family business to pay for their second child’s college tuition. Their first child, Axl, is able to depend on the safety net of his family such that while he lives with his parents, he goes from making $41,600 as a bus driver in episode 2 of their final season to $49,463 as an entry-level plumbing supply salesperson in episode 21. Not only does he have the safety net of living with his parents—albeit in cramped circumstances—but he also is able to pursue work in his field of choice within his first 6 months out of school without fear of being houseless or unable to pay for necessities.

The fact that the Hecks family still sees themselves as broke despite showing all indication of maintaining a lifestyle commiserate with their cost of living bears questioning of the concept of “brokeness” and who truly meets it.

THEME: WORTH

As discourse around wages and how people find themselves on the various rungs of the class ladder persist in society, many of the stories in our study that followed characters living within the low to low-middle rungs tend to explain why their pay does or does not reflect their actual “worth” as humans.

For the Gallagher family of Shameless, they are making the best of a hopeless situation as children of a conman and an addict living in a home falling apart in South Side, Chicago. The siblings often endure dehumanizing situations that limit their self-worth, such as an instance in “Gallagher Pedicure” where Debbie Gallagher waits in a dingy basement line with her toddler in tow to pick up a mismatched box of food at a local food pantry. They also resort to crafty means because they have learned not to trust in good from the world yet strive to remain good at heart so that they are at least morally superior to their unscrupulous father. Similar to their real-world counterparts, the Gallaghers hold distaste for the wealthy while also striving to become financially successful themselves—a great irony of morality under a capitalist system.

In Mom, the mother and daughter relationship between the series’ main protagonists, Bonnie and Christy, presents as a narrative around rehabilitation both in health and life with Christy learning to forgive and understand her mother’s transgressions as an addict during her childhood. The mishaps and adventures that the two go on serve to “heal” the rift between them and show that anyone is worthy of a comeback, even if that comeback isn’t under the most ideal of circumstances.

The issue with these sorts of tales is that they frame these primarily white families as falling upon hard times or having drawn a bad lot in life to now depend on low-income options. Comparatively in Superstore, their cast members, with a fairly representative spread of BIPOC characters, don’t get a lot of exposition for how they ended up in low-wage jobs. Even this show provides reasoning for why one of its white characters, Jonah, works at Superstore, buying into this thematic framing that is rooted in the comfort of intrinsically linking race and class.

THEME: OTHERING AND VOYEURISM

While it is the nature of capitalist society to treat engagement or watching of the affluent as stoking ambition within people with lower levels of income, the opposite, the rich having a level of fascination in consuming the experience of people from lower classes, is downright voyeuristic. In season 8 of Shameless, we see Carl Gallagher get entangled in a relationship with a young addict, who we later learn is from a well-to-do family and pulled herself into the Gallagher’s orbit because she is enticed by their lower-class struggle to survive. This character’s journey is reflective of the phenomenon of “slumming drama,” wherein the rich become interested in, and even sexually attracted to, the poor. It is also a blatant usage of the culture of poverty narrative, which insists on presenting issues faced by low-income characters as personal rather than structural developments.

The rich sense that the poor have something they lack—bodily strength, excitement, unrestrained sex, or a simple authentic life—and want to possess it. Presented in a sensationalist mode, slumming dramas elicit a titillating reading or viewing experience.[16]

Not only does the exploitative nature of these relationships harm lower income people, but it also furthers their victimization. Yet, it is a practice that has remained somewhat acceptable in popular society as it plays into the “culture of poverty” narrative that has influenced social scientific research for decades and has informed both politicians’ (predominantly Republicans’) and the public’s understanding of poverty. This concept posits that living in persistent poverty results in the formation of a specific culture that, passed on over generations, produces attitudes and values that yield to dysfunctional behavior.[17]

Ironically, with the people behind the camera of these television programs coming from circumstances completely unlike their low-income characters, they also ask the audience to view these characters in a voyeuristic, judgmental lens—without their consent.

THEME: PERSONAL FAILURE PREVAILS, NOT STRUCTURAL EXPLOITATION

Indeed, prevailing narratives of individualism determining one’s lot in life (i.e., every person having the ability to pull themselves out of abject circumstances into a more favorable lifestyle) lead to findings in the Power of POP study looking much like those of Conrad et al., wherein individual causes of homelessness are attributed to individual or group decisions, actions, or behaviors, including criminal behavior, mental illness, substance use, distability, or failure to meet bills.[18] There were very few instances where characters living within these circumstances ever aligned their issue with a systemic shortcoming or oversight, sparing the sarcastic and inauthentic Frank Gallagher of Shameless or the “Health Fund” episode of Superstore, which relies on the audience to pick up on the dysfunction of the health insurance industry.

This bias stems from the “culture of poverty” frame, which blames the individual for failing to obtain a better life, consequently shifting the blame of addressing the problem of poverty on the individual. This approach furthers a centuries-old binary of “the deserving” and “the undeserving” poor, which is equally rooted within white American racist attitudes that insist Black people are naturally inferior. With a focus on the failings of the individual, this narrative emphasizes personal inadequacies including addiction, laziness, or “making the wrong choices” or “bad decisions.” By instigating a separatist culture, those with influence and power are exonerated from responsibility for discriminatory laws and institutions.[19]

This furthers an argument for the use of charity to maintain the status quo of systemic behavior among the classes. In fact, the television episodes in the Conrad-Perez et al. study found 44% of the resolutions presented to counter homelessness centered on charity—going so far as to present charity as the solution to institutional issues for characters like a disabled veteran and a runaway foster child. The fact that the charitable solutions found for both of these cases were only stopgap measures makes clear that charities are often not organized to change the structural conditions upon which homelessness rest. Nevertheless, this frame went unchallenged, instead opting to pull on the heartstrings of viewers who want to see the main characters as heroes, not perpetrators of bad systemic practices. Centering storytelling directly on houseless characters could instead use their brushes with charity to highlight the many stopgap measures that persist within these systems without providing long-term solutions to eradicating poverty.


15 https://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/11/18/walmart-store-holding-thanksgiving-charity-food-drive-for-its-own-employees/?sh=29172af32ee5

16 Gandal, K. (2007). Gandal’s Class Representation in Modern Fiction and Film.

17 Lewis, O. (1959). Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty.

18 Conrad-Pérez, D., Chattoo, C. B., Coskuntuncel, A., & Young, L. (2021). Voiceless Victims and Charity Saviors: How US Entertainment TV Portrays Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in a Time of Crisis. International Journal of Communication, 15, 22.

19 Lemke, S. (2016) The Nation: American Exceptionalism in Our Time. In: Inequality, Poverty and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Breaking Down Portrayed Income

In the 2017–2018 season of television, character representation across race and ethnicity skews overwhelmingly white. This disproportionate sample means that each level of income holds double-digit percentage rates of white representation, whereas their BIPOC peers remain 8% or less in any income representation. The greatest distribution of income representation by race/ethnicity occurs at the middle-income tier—with white characters making up 37%, Black characters 8%, Hispanic 3%, and Asian and Other at 2% each. This is unsurprising, given the wide range of income this designation covers.

The overwhelming whiteness of the 2017–2018 TV season means that all calculations of race and income for this study are more likely to represent white characters and households. White characters out-ratio Black characters such that we see 4 white characters for every 1 Black character, 11 white characters to every Hispanic character, 13 white characters to every 1 Asian character, and 14 white characters to every character included in the “Other” category—which typically identifies persons of mixed ethnicity or race. There is, in fact, no representation at all in the entire sample of Native/Indigenous characters, an extremely excessive oversight on behalf of casting in Hollywood.

Approximately 75% of all characters included in this sample were part of the main cast of their respective shows, while 23% of the sample filled either recurring or guest spots. Much of the same race/ethnicity breakdowns remain the same in this breakdown, with 52% of key characters being white to 15% recurring, 12% key Black characters to 4% recurring, 5% key Hispanic characters to 1% recurring, 4% key Asian characters to 1% recurring, and equal amounts of characters representing key and recurring roles for those categorized as Other at 4% each. Here the overrepresentation of white characters stands without overrepresentation of any other race in either key or recurring roles. As far as income, key characters represent 18% of low-income characters to recurring characters’ 3%, 39% of middle-income characters to 13%, and 17% of low-income characters to 6% of high-income characters. To better encapsulate the circumstances these characters represented, we conducted an analysis of characters representing recurrent or low wage–bearing professions by their local or regional wage representation via Glassdoor. This includes common roles that place characters within the upper-middle income range of pay—such as investigators and detectives—as well as families of three or more living on lower middle to low incomes.

The spread of income presented in the table must be further scrutinized by the number of people in each household who also generate income as well as cost of living per locality. What we overwhelmingly found is that those with higher salaries tended to live in households with partners who generate similar income or on their own, leaving them free to afford cost of living in the cities they inhabit. For example, Rainbow Johnson from Black-ish not only generates high income as a physician, but she also is also married to a senior advertisement executive who helps their family of five children, two retired grandparents, and two working adults to pay for college, private school, and a lifestyle befitting the suburbs of Los Angeles. This representation is in direct juxtaposition to the DiMeo family in Speechless, who get by on the single income of the father, Jimmy DiMeo, and any disability aid that supports one of the three kids, JJ, who has cerebral palsy.

This is significant not only for offering a snapshot of the general spread of income representation and why outliers like the Johnson family influence the sample’s observed income by race, but also because studies indicate that many lower-middle to low-income families are simply one economic emergency away from being impoverished—with 45% of families having resources no more than twice the poverty threshold.[20]

 

Indeed, observations from hunger experts like Josh Gwin of Marion Polk Food Share shows that people who are only one missed utility bill away from hunger or eviction often depend on social services like food drives,[21] which bears questioning of the ways income have been calculated by scholar and the general public alike given inflation, stagnant wages, and increases to the cost of living throughout the United States. If someone who is considered middle income by current estimates is only one debt away from facing denial of food or shelter, is the income bracket underestimating poverty?

In terms of this report’s sample, while we found the levels of income tied to racial representation as a whole, we would like to note that the only key BIPOC character of The Big Bang Theory, Raj Koothrappali, works in a field that pays significantly less than his fellow scientists, at $60,056 to his peers’ income upwards of $90,000. While he is shown to be supported by his parents, who bring in significant wealth, this was an observance of significant difference by race within one show included in the sample.

While the above observations sum up the report sample, they do not represent the reality or scope of racial disparity in economic opportunities. In a 2021 Urban Institute report, two-thirds of white children were estimated to be born into advantageous circumstances, while only one in five Black children and one in three Hispanic children are born into advantageous circumstances. This study further projected that 50% of all children born into disadvantaged circumstances versus more than 66% of those born into advantaged circumstances are on track toward healthy development and economic security at age 30. This disparity in reaching economic stability by 30 is further stratified by race, where 58% of white children from disadvantaged circumstances are on track but only 37% of Black, non-Hispanic and 50% of Hispanic children from similar circumstances meet this projection.[22] With structural economic and social stakeholders like residential segregation, unequal access to educational opportunities, and unequal treatment by law enforcement contributing to this ongoing disparity, the 2017–2018 season severely misrepresents reality.

Not even in our select sample of shows depicting low-income characters did we find representation of a low-income BIPOC family to help us exemplify the above finding. Thus, there is a void in scripted television for this arena of representation.


20 https://www.urban.org/research/publication/2021-poverty-projections

21 Asian, 2018: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?tid=ACSSPP1Y2018.S0201&hidePreview=true&t=012%20-%20Asian%20alone%20%28400-499%29%3A031%20-%20Asian%20 alone%20or%20in%20combination%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races%20%20%28400-499%29%20%26%20%28100-299%29%20or%20%28300,%20A01-Z99%29%20 or%20%28400-999%29
Black, 2018: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?tid=ACSSPP1Y2018.S0201&hidePreview=true&t=004%20-%20Black%20or%20African%20American%20alone%3A005%20-%20 Black%20or%20African%20American%20alone%20or%20in%20combination%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races
Hispanic, 2010: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=&t=400%20-%20Hispanic%20or%20Latino%20%28of%20any%20race%29%3AEarnings%20%28Individuals%29%3AIncome%20 %28Households,%20Families,%20Individuals%29%3AIncome%20and%20Earnings%3AIncome%20and%20Poverty%3ASNAP%2FFood%20Stamps&tid=ACSDP5YSPT2010.DP03
Other, 2018: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?tid=ACSSPP1Y2018.S0201&hidePreview=true&t=070%20-%20Some%20other%20race%20alone%3A071%20-%20Some%20other%20 race%20alone%20or%20in%20combination%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races
White, 2018:  https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?tid=ACSSPP1Y2018.S0201&hidePreview=true&t=002%20-%20White%20alone%3A003%20-%20White%20alone%20or%20in%20combi-nation%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races

22 https://www.urban.org/research/publication/identifying-pathways-upward-mobility

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