Story-Driven Policy: Worth a Try!

By Shlomo  Maital

Kevin and Nicholas

Nicholas Kristof and friend Kevin Green, Yamhill

  The latest buzzword in professional and academic circles is “evidence-based”.  As an adjective, it modifies ‘psychology’,  ‘medical care’,  ‘policy’… everything.  Everything has to be evidence based. That usually implies a large data base mined for correlations.   Problem with that is,  G-d is in the details.  Truth is in the details.  By using data, especially Big Data, we miss the stories about the “little” people… forgotten people who struggle daily with illness, poverty, crime, drugs and other afflictions.  The Talmud says, If you save a single soul, it is as if you saved the whole world.  The point, of course, is to treat every single person with huge respect and massive importance.

    Today’s New York Times has two seemingly-unrelated stories that make this point perfectly.

    In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns  the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    In Binyamin Applebaum’s piece on Washington, “Three stories illustrate Fed’s power and its limits”,  he covers Janet Yellen (Fed Chair) and her first speech.  Instead of an academic bore, quoting data, citing equations and analysis,   Yellen, who is brilliant, told the stories of three Chicago residents struggling to recover from the recession. She used their stories to explain why she will be very very slow and cautious in ending the Fed’s low-interest policy, despite Republican pressure to do so.   I wonder if she chose Chicago, because that is where President Obama lived and worked.

     All three ‘heroes’ in Yellen’s speech are struggling, but gaining ground.  Jermain Brownlee, 40, got a job building bus seats, though he makes less than he once did in construction.  Dorine Poole lost her job, then got a new one as a full-time office manager.  She makes $20,000 a year,  far less than the $32,000 she once made before the recession, as a claims processor.  Vicki Lara, 62,  lost her job in the recession and a year later, is serving food samples in a supermarket two days a week, six hours a day.  She wishes she could work more hours.  She owed $1,200 when she lost her job, and that debt has now ballooned to $3,700, with interest.  If she worked more, the companies to whom she owes money would simply garnish her wages.  So she had to decline a full-time job.   She told the NYT,  “When I walk home to catch the bus, I see five homeless people freezing in this weather…I wish I made enough money to help them.”

     Lots of people do make enough money to help them. But if you believe it’s their own fault, why bother?  Surely, they LOVE being homeless, outside, in the freezing cold.  Who wouldn’t? 

     I would like to see story-based policy.  If you want to cut welfare as a policy,  tell me a story about a real person and real events, to back up what you claim.    When I was a professor, I wrote papers based on data.  I always felt that the REAL story was in the story itself. But when I told stories, my papers were rejected, often with biting comments – because in Academe, “story” is a swear word.  Single cases, it is claimed, prove nothing.

    Wrong.  They prove everything.  They help us understand real people, real events, real problems.  When the U.S. Congress is populated by elected representatives, half of whom are millionaires, how in the world can they understand people like kevin, Vicki, Jerome or Dorine?    They can’t.      

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