Talking about poverty – is being careful about language enough
by Caroline Hartnell
‘The problem with the word poverty is that it embodies so many negatives,’ said journalist Stephen Armstrong, author of The New Poverty, speaking at Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) ‘Talking about Poverty’ conference in London on 30 January. He told a story. ‘I said to someone living on $2.50 a day, “what’s it like living in poverty?” His answer was: “I don’t live in poverty.”’ It seems that the very poor don’t want to be associated with poverty.
‘The first step in rethinking poverty is to rethink whether we should use the word “poverty”’
This story chimes well with the findings of five years of extensive research by the Webb Memorial Trust, summarised in Barry Knight’s book Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? ‘The first step in rethinking poverty is to rethink whether we should use the word “poverty”, a word that divides people emotionally and politically,’ says Knight. ‘This division means that policies to address poverty have always had limited support. Rather than seeking to assign blame for the problem of poverty, a more productive approach is to focus instead on building the society we want – a good society.’
JRF is taking a different path – contrary to what JRF’s Chris Goulden suggests in his blog, also published today. Their Talking about Poverty project with the US-based Frameworks Institute focuses on changing the way we talk about poverty, how we present our messages. ‘The definition of madness is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result,’ said JRF CEO Campbell Robb. ‘We need to change what we’re doing.’ A sentiment no one could disagree with.
What is the JRF research trying to achieve?
The aim of the JRF/Frameworks research is to understand how the public thinks and then deliberately exclude the negatives from messages about poverty, focusing instead on the positives, in the hope of being able to change public opinion and create a climate in which sustained policy change is possible. The findings of the research were presented at well-attended conferences in London and Edinburgh (I was at the London one).
The Framework Institute’s Nat Kendall-Taylor is himself an engaging presenter. He describes himself as a ‘psychological anthropologist’ – someone who looks at how culture influences the way we think, and how different ways of presenting messages affect how people think about social issues and what they are prepared to do about them. Culture is ‘a shared set of models/ways of thinking. It stands between the things we say and the things people take from our messages. You say, “Poverty needs to be addressed.” They think: “Poverty isn’t that bad here.”’
The Frameworks theory of change looks like this:
Communication > Discourse > Thinking > Policy
Lobbying bypasses the middle two, says Kendall-Taylor. If you don’t try to shift public thinking, you will do this work forever as political parties come and go. ‘Without affecting public thinking sustained change isn’t possible.’
The challenge, he says, is to figure out what’s out there. ‘If you understand what’s out there, you can be strategic in how you communicate rather than triggering barriers.’ For example, people who hold the view that our society is prosperous and poverty doesn’t exist any more – it’s something that existed in Victorian times or in Africa – will tend to ignore messages about poverty. The view that poverty arises from individual choices – what Frameworks rather unfortunately calls ‘self-makingness’ –will lead people to blame the poor for being poor rather than taking collective responsibility as a society. The view that poverty is always with us will induce an unhelpful fatalism.
‘Without affecting public thinking sustained change isn’t possible.’
Reframing poverty: 8 Ways to Open Minds
Having first exhorted people to ‘understand what you’re up against’, the research recommendations focus on how to reframe issues. The key is to pick out positive messages and exclude all negatives from communications.
While connecting your messages with values can be helpful in shifting thinking – justice and compassion, especially together, are the strongest values. Here a more credible messenger might help: it seems that non-political messengers (bishops seem to be ideal) are vastly more effective than bipartisan messengers.
Using metaphors that ‘stick’ can also help – ‘stickiness’ is a concept beloved of the communications industry. The idea of people being restricted and restrained, locked in, by the economy can be particularly effective in countering the idea of ‘selfmakingness’, forcing people away from the idea of poor people making bad life choices towards seeing the economy as the determinant. The idea of ‘currents’, poverty sweeping people in certain directions, is also a good one, says Kendall-Taylor. Metaphor also needs to counter the view of the economy as a natural force that can’t be changed. The language of ‘redesign the economy’ helps drive a wedge in that fatalism.
Other ideas for improving communications include using examples (food banks, housing) as ‘issue wedges’; positioning benefits as solutions (we all rely on social services; benefits is just one of these social services) and telling good stories.
How effective is all this?
Peter Kelly described how Poverty Alliance Scotland reframed their messages for 2017 Challenge Poverty Week. Rather than ‘Poverty is a big issue in Scotland’, they had: ‘Poverty affects all of us and we can address it by boosting incomes and reducing costs.’ They adopted the hashtag #Ayewecan and used the term social security rather than benefits. The aim was to remove fatalism and bring in positive solutions. A dramatic increase in the number of organisations taking part was one result. Kelly’s conclusion: there is an appetite to talk about addressing poverty in a more positive way but changing the narrative will take time.
Kate Stanley of NSPCC described how in 2013 they commissioned Frameworks to help them tell a better story – one bringing in values (social responsibility) and solutions as well as the facts rather than simply focusing on the heart-searing facts about child abuse. The facts + values + solutions approach proved markedly more successful in fundraising.
‘How ‘sticky’ are these changes? If you go back to the old language, will you just get the old views?’
All this is encouraging. The big question is whether being careful about how you talk about poverty will be enough to produce sustained shifts in how people think, especially about a subject like benefits that is so mired in hostility and blame. Frameworks videos showed the same people espousing opposite views about poverty, moving from a focus on individual responsibility (it’s all about life choices) to collective responsibility (people don’t have the same opportunities, do they?) when questions were posed in a different way using different language. But how ‘sticky’ are these changes? If you go back to the old language, will you just get the old views?
And what happens when JRF and other anti-poverty campaigners are no longer controlling the poverty discourse? When it’s the Daily Mail and the other right-wing tabloids peddling their view of lazy benefits scroungers robbing hard-working folk? In Hull, local councillors, communities organizations, students and others are using the hashtag #thehullwewant – something that can unite all the different people there who want to make Hull a better place to live in, which of course includes getting rid of poverty.
Caroline Hartnell convenes the Rethinking Poverty blog.
Read Chris Goulden’s JRF piece.
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- Poverty eradication is a ‘vaste programme’ – Bassma Kodmani on Rethinking Poverty
- Mapping a new way to a society we want – Peter Hetherington on Rethinking Poverty