Understanding and developing new language around poverty
by Abigail Scott Paul
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.