Workshop Report: The Language of Poverty | Rethinking Poverty

Workshop Report: The Language of Poverty

Posted on 15 Mar 2016   Categories: Blog, Events, Event reports, Language of Poverty Related Tags:  , , , , , ,

by Georgia Smith

The word ‘poverty’ features heavily in the lexicon of British politics. The Prime Minister has proposed an “all-out assault on poverty,” Labour MPs and peers recently campaigned hard to defend the way child poverty indicators are measured, and the Scottish Government funds the Poverty Alliance, a highly effective network of anti-poverty advocates in Scotland. Whilst it’s nobody’s favourite word, we do not shy away from talking about poverty. However, as one participant commented at a recent workshop on UK poverty and inequality, for most people being ‘skint’ is a far more acceptable term than being in ‘poverty’.

Workshop logosAt a workshop on 29 January 2016, the Webb Memorial Trust, Oxfam and Shelter brought together representatives from over 25 organisations working in the anti-poverty field to better understand public attitudes to poverty and to examine the language we use when trying to communicate research and ideas which aim to reduce UK poverty.


The day started with six presentations from experts on UK poverty and communications. Please click on the links to view slides.

Professor John Hudson and Dr Neil Lunt from York University kicked off with an analysis of public attitudes to welfare spending in the UK since the 1940s. Their research shows declining support for welfare spending since the 1960s, suggesting that decade is perhaps mis-remembered as the height of the political consensus. Nonetheless, attitudes in the UK have changed most dramatically in recent decades; in 1987 60% of people supported the view that there should be increased welfare spending funded by higher taxes, falling to 35% by 2013. Roger Harding, Director of Communications at Shelter, also picked up on this decline, noting that of the three pillars of the welfare state – health, education and housing – the latter is no longer commonly identified as the responsibility of government.

Professor Hudson and Dr Lunt’s research finds that the UK has long been unsympathetic to structural causes of poverty; a far lower proportion of adults blame a deprived childhood as the main cause of poverty in the UK compared with most European countries, and a higher proportion blame ‘laziness’. They concluded by questioning whether the concerns of the public or those of political elites matter most in determining attitudes to welfare spending.


Drawing on research conducted by YouGov, Director of the Webb Memorial Trust, Barry Knight, reflected on current sentiments towards poverty in the UK. He defined this as an area where ‘blame holds sway,’ suggesting an anti-poverty sector that enthusiastically identifies problems but offers few solutions bears some responsibility for the prevailing culture of blame and the notion that poverty is too big to deal with. 

Research for the Webb Memorial Trust found that in the UK around a third of people identify the causes of poverty as structural, a third see poverty as a consequence of individual choices and a final third see it as something inevitable that will always exist. People then interpret whatever statistic or headline they receive through this pre-existing lense; a tendency known as confirmation bias.

Barry suggested that one way of challenging this is through “asset-based solutions rather than problem-based challenges.” This may sound suspiciously like something an estate agent might say but is actually a technique successfully used by race equality campaigners in the US to re-frame the issue in more constructive terms. Instead of using abstract terms like ‘combating poverty’, it is better to shed light on practical solutions, such as ‘helping someone to pay the bills.’ 

Similarly, it is security and other social qualities such as fairness and safety – above economic indicators – that dominate what people define as the qualities of a good society. Rather than suggesting that income is unimportant, this shows that the language of poverty is fickle and best communicated in terms people really care about, such as the desire to feel safe and secure.


Emily Fu, Associate Director at social research agency TNS BMRB, examined the emotional drivers of public attitudes towards housing benefit. She presented a strong image of the pyramid of public perception of deserving and undeserving poor. At the top of the pyramid, as the public sees it, are the small numbers of deserving poor – the elderly and disabled. In the middle are single parents and working families on low incomes and short-term job-seekers. At the wider end of the pyramid are the masses of undeserving poor – the work-shy, non-working immigrants on benefits and fraudulent claimants. Needless to say, what happens in real life is the inverse of the pyramid of public perception.

Emily’s research also highlighted a couple of depressing counter-intuitive factors. Rational arguments about welfare – also known as facts – not only fail to persuade people but often serve to entrench existing prejudices. And proximity to claimants – living in communities with a higher proportion of people receiving benefits – actually serves as a negative influence on attitudes.

Exposure levels of both the ‘very deserving’ and ‘very undeserving’ poor are high – their stories feature prominently in the press. However, there is little coverage of those in the middle section of the pyramid; people that should and do receive benefits but are in no way newsworthy. Emily suggested that greater discussion of this ‘hidden middle’ and ‘people like me’ – could help to shift the debate away from heuristic thinking about welfare.


Next up Kate Bell drew on her experience as a former policy advisor to the Labour Party and coordinator with CPAG to ask the question; where next for anti-poverty campaigners? In order to encourage politicians to take action, Kate advised that any campaign or policy idea needs to have three key ingredients; it needs to be the right thing to do, it needs to fit the existing narrative, and it should speak to an element of political risk.

First, conviction politicians do exist and will back policies either because there is a personal or constituency-based connection or simply because they are the right thing to do. Second, policies that reinforce an electorally successful narrative will always have greater traction with MPs. Finally, politicians are more likely to take action if a campaign is politically risky, either because it affects a large number of people or it risks reinforcing commonly held assumptions about the party.

To increase the likelihood of policy take-up, Kate suggested three further ingredients; policy should be seen to be achievable, it should not cut across other narratives, and there should be strong voices in support. Reminding anti-poverty campaigners that policies don’t have to be ‘oven ready’ was useful to hear; being feasible is important but policy advisors and economists will work out the details. On narrative continuity Kate pointed out that the Labour Party’s messaging around reinforcing fiscal credibility made it difficult to pursue a proposal to ‘triple lock’ child-related benefits but a proposal to launch a new specialist employment programme for disabled people was more sympathetic to this narrative. Finally, Kate acknowledged that it is difficult to move beyond the usual suspects when seeking support for anti-poverty policies but strong voices – and this doesn’t usually mean wonky experts – make a real difference.


Deborah Mattinson, Founding Director of Britain Thinks, picked up the theme of public engagement. The first key requirement for effective public engagement is the framing of the argument. She stressed the need for good case studies, clear messages with planned rebuttals, careful use of language and imagery, and effective spokespeople.

Context is crucial; people do not receive messages in isolation and campaigners must consider both competing influences and the values and experiences of those they are targeting. The public is bombarded with messaging and filters out much of the noise. For example, a single week ahead of the 2015 General Election in which a host of political events occurred was largely remembered by voters as the week a couple from Scunthorpe won the lottery twice. Cutting through this noise is difficult for campaigners but it is important to start from where people are rather than where you want them to be.

Several speakers highlighted that myth-busting does not work and nor does the so-called ‘killer fact.’ The public simply filters out messages that contradict their beliefs. The challenge is to find commonly held values or beliefs and start the conversation from there.

Careful use of words is crucial. For example, the recommendation that excluded pupils ‘should be given’ a place at another school elicits a much less sympathetic response than stating that pupils ‘should not be denied’ a school place; denial of opportunity sits badly with most people. Deborah also recommended the use of self-reflection to engender empathy. For example, asking what would happen if you lost your job, your marriage broke up, you were evicted or lost your house?


Abigail Scott Paul, Head of Engagement at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, delivered the final presentation, introducing research that is currently underway with the National Children’s Bureau and FrameWorks Institute, a US-based nonprofit that specialises in public discourse about social issues. This is part of a multi-year project which will culminate in a costed and comprehensive strategy to reduce poverty in the UK.

JRF’s research identifies the word ‘poverty’ as a barrier to building public support and political consensus for the need to reduce it. It leads instantly to narrow debates on individual versus structural causes, and relative versus absolute poverty. It is no accident that the word is omitted from JRF’s guiding vision – “a prosperous society, built on decent living standards and the freedom for all to participate.”

JRF and FrameWorks Institute aim to develop a new way of communicating about poverty in the UK based on how the public think about poverty, not just what they say. This approach seeks to map the ‘expert story’ onto public understanding, partly by identifying the gaps between the two. The end goal is a set of empirically-tested communications tools that expand public understanding of poverty.

One tool that FrameWorks Institute has successfully used in the field of childhood development is the explanatory metaphor. At a later forum hosted by JRF, Nat Kendall-Taylor from FrameWorks Institute used the example of the concept of brain development (difficult to understand) combined with building architecture (easy to understand) to produce an explanatory metaphor – brain architecture – which enhances the robustness of the conversation around cognitive development. JRF and FrameWorks Institute hope to produce a shared narrative around UK poverty that will frame the messaging used by different organisations in the sector to trigger a common public cultural understanding of poverty, thereby improving the space in which evidence-based anti-poverty policies operate and enhancing their efficacy.

It is a hugely ambitious project but all the more exciting for seeking to change the rules on the way anti-poverty campaigners currently communicate. As Barry Knight pointed out earlier in the workshop, preaching to the choir is not improving public understanding of poverty. JRF’s evidence-based approach might just change this.


Following the presentations we held a number of self-reflection sessions which sought to identify how the anti-poverty sector could work differently and who the target groups are the we need to better engage with if we wish to change the dynamics of the debate on poverty in the UK.  Rather than just engaging with these groups – which range from businesses to swing voters – it was agreed that the sector needs to understand their interests and incentives and communicate in a way that resonates with them and keeps poverty reduction high on the political and public agenda.


Written by Georgia Smith, Communications Officer, Webb Memorial Trust

Posted on 15 Mar 2016   Categories: Blog, Events, Event reports, Language of Poverty Related Tags:  , , , , , ,

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