Tom Mould

 

On his book Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America

Cover Interview of August 05, 2020

Lastly

The primary goal of this book is to challenge the stereotypical stories about welfare and its recipients and offer more accurate, fair, and nuanced stories from aid recipients themselves. More than that, however, the book offers strategies to readers for challenging these stereotypes in their own stories and their own lives.

Economists and policy wonks can develop strategies, policies, and plans, but without the will of politicians and the public, the best laid plans will suffer the fate of the tree that falls in the woods with no one to hear it. If a politician believes the poor are lazy cheats, she will likely not vote to fund job training or childcare vouchers. One way to change these perceptions is through stories.

We can start by de-stigmatizing poverty and welfare and by tackling the stories about welfare with an understanding of just how powerful stories can be. Not only are stories crucial to how we perceive and construct our world—they are enduring. As Chip and Dan Heath argue in their New York Times bestselling book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, stories are sticky; with their concrete details and remarkable plots, stories are eminently memorable. Unlike statistics and arguments, stories are remembered more clearly and more often than information conveyed in more abstract ways.

Stories are also entertaining. We tell stories for amusement and sociability, not just as proof for some point we want to make. In this way, stories can operate like epidemics: spreading virally from one person to another. A single story of welfare fraud told a hundred times can start to feel like a hundred cases of welfare fraud. Further, stories can encode deep-seated beliefs that we may be unwilling to share so explicitly and boldly. Our stories betray our fears and desires in ways our direct speech does not.

But just as stories can perpetuate stereotypes, they can also dismantle them. Social science research provides the blueprint for advocacy through storytelling. Empathy, familiarity, and internal and external coherence are particularly powerful rhetorical elements of persuasive narratives. Reframing narratives already in the oral tradition is particularly effective in identifying stories told by aid recipients that are most likely to change people’s hearts and minds.

Overthrowing the Queen does not cherry-pick the stories told about welfare in the U.S. All the stories, true, false, and everywhere in between are included. But analysis of these stories offers readers the opportunity to learn and retell stories from people with firsthand experience relying on aid to survive. Further, the final chapter of the book suggests strategies for highlighting authentic narratives with the best chances of being heard.

In this way, the book operates as a corrective. With fraud rates in aid programs such as Food Stamps well below 2%, we would need to tell 50-75 stories of people working hard to make ends meet for every one story of fraud. In the interest of fairness, we have a long way to go.