Poverty – are we doing it wrong?

2 Feb 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 2 Feb 2018

Two years of research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Frameworks Institute have found that traditional campaigns against poverty tend to backfire. If this issue is to be tackled, a new approach is required.

Most people think poverty is bad.

However, poverty in the UK is on the rise, and has been for years. If it is so unpopular, why has the public not demanded change?

There are plenty of individuals and organisations campaigning against poverty. They have a public platform and are part of the chaotic cacophony of public discourse.

But these efforts are not having the intended effect – undoubtedly not because, as per the above, the problem continues to get worse.

This is not because people do not care about poverty. Instead, this illustrates the scale of the challenge for poverty campaigners – in particular, anyone responsible for shaping the messages any campaign wants to communicate.

In fact, a new investigation has found that many of the standard approaches to raising awareness of poverty not only do not work, they backfire – failing to strike the correct emotional tone and making people believe either that poverty does not exist, is the fault of the people suffering from it, or is a problem that cannot be fixed.

The two years of research, carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the FrameWorks Institute, have come to conclusions that actually reach beyond the question of poverty and into something more fundamental.

At the same time, however, these organisations have found some principles that, they say, can help anyone frame their campaigns in a way that works, and that will resonate with the public.

Nicky Hawkins, from the FrameWorks Institute, said: “You can’t disprove a feeling, and you can’t argue against an emotion with numbers – you have to weave the facts into a different and more appealing story than your rivals’.”

What to do

The report has eight key recommendations for making a more effective case to tackle poverty.

1. You have to understand public thinking to change it

The investigation found there are three major patterns of thought that dominates how the British public sees poverty, and the prospect of change.

Post-poverty – that UK society is prosperous and has progressed beyond poverty: for people who think poverty does not exist in the UK, facts and stories will not fit their view and have no effect on them.

‘Self-makingness’ – an individual’s circumstances is the sole result of their motivation and choices: when people think this, the only sensible solutions they see are ‘try harder’ and ‘work more’.

The game is rigged – we are all at the mercy of elites who manipulate the system to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else: a fatalistic view that causes people to disengage entirely because they think change is impossible.

Each of these ways of thinking turns people away from seeing poverty as something that we can solve collectively – by dismissing its existence, seeing it as a problem created by those in poverty, or by saying it is insoluble.

Per the report: “The combined effect is that poverty is either dismissed out of hand or viewed as inherent to human existence and impossible to change. This makes many seemingly sensible poverty messages backfire. Inadvertently activating these ways of thinking makes people more likely to blame individuals for being in poverty, less concerned with the issue, and less supportive of change.”

2. Show why poverty matters

JRF and the Framework Institute argues that making the moral case against poverty – shared values of compassion and justice, which are deeply held – is the best way to encourage people that there is a problem and we, as a society, can fix it.

However, a hectoring tone or apparent virtue signalling are doomed to fail.

“This doesn’t mean asserting moral superiority, claiming the moral high ground, or highlighting the moral failures of others. It does mean calling to mind the moral values that we all share and hold dear.

“Emphasising our society’s moral compassion works well for people across the political spectrum. Adding in a sense of justice and opportunity works particularly well to create a different understanding of poverty among people with more conservative views.”

3. Address poverty head on

Put in the right terms, poverty will be recognised as a pressing social concern.

However, making related matters like benefits “turns people off and prompts them to shut out your message.”

“Without careful framing, benefits are a mental short cut to blame and disdain. They invite people to examine whether individuals deserve society’s support rather than the flaws in the system. Benefits must be the solution to a larger issue, not the problem to solve.”

More recommendations

4. Tone down the politics

As an observation, this will be familiar with everyone in Northern Ireland, where politics – particularly party politics - infects everything.

“While poverty is a political issue, leading with or stressing its political dimensions often puts people off and makes them shut out your message. Words that are associated with a political ideology can prevent people from hearing you and seeing what you’re saying.

“Research shows that we can change hearts and minds among people of all political persuasions – but that we must steer clear of overtly politicised language if we hope to do so.”

5. Explain how the economy locks people in poverty

Being able to communicate how something works is a powerful tool, creating more understanding, and a stronger and longer-lasting impression than a simple description is able to do.

The report says that by “changing how people understand poverty… we move public thinking and create more fertile ground for new policies and solutions.”

6. Talk about how benefits loosen poverty’s grip

When it comes to benefits, people are more receptive when they see the welfare state as part of a solution to a problem – a solution that maybe could work better – rather than the fundamental problem to be addressed.

7. Explain how the economy can be redesigned

Again, the investigation shows that an emphasis on collective agency is key to bringing people on board to tackling poverty.

“The economy is seen as big, complicated and unmovable. It’s viewed as a natural part of our lives – it’s just the way it is and just does what it does.

“To avoid triggering this fatalism and instead instil a powerful sense of pragmatism, we can talk about the economy as a designed system – one that we can redesign.”

8. Help people see what your facts and stories mean

Statistics do not speak for themselves. More surprisingly, according to the research, nor do heart-breaking stories. What makes a more compelling argument is placing these things within a coherent narrative that shows a bigger picture.

“Stories about people’s struggles can be powerful. But resonating with the public is not enough. We need to build a better understanding of poverty’s causes and help people connect with solutions – not just describe the trials people face and conquer through their own personal strength.”


These solutions are not about subterfuge, or sleight of hand.

Every communications worker knows there are good and bad ways to deliver the same message. There is an art and a science to creating a good campaign.

What this investigation has found is that – in terms of poverty, in particular, although Ms Hawkins from the FrameWorks Institute also cites analogous issues with climate change and inequality – moral arguments are effective, but moralising is not, and that many common themes of modern anti-poverty work are worse than ineffective.

By showing how certain problems can be solved by society, as a collective – avoiding anything that could be conceived as moral superiority, or outright denials of the role of individual responsibility.

Ms Hawkins said: “It’s not just a case of telling people what they want to hear. It’s about framing the case for change in a way that doesn’t require people to abandon all the beliefs they hold close: they simply won’t. Motivating and inspiring others to care can feel very counterintuitive, though. The first step is understanding where people are coming from: lots of analysis to work out what’s really going on when someone answers yes or no on a ballot paper.”

Last week, in an article for JRF, she outlined some of the issues further, by noting the outrage about recent comments from Tory MP Ben Bradley, who said criticised many unemployed people as a "vast sea of unemployed wasters" and suggesting poor people should have vasectomies.

Ms Hawkins said that much of the anger aimed at Mr Bradley would have the opposite effect from what is intended, adding: “There’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to rising levels of poverty in the UK. But instead of feeding our outrage and sowing further division, let’s channel our energy into telling a new story.”

This investigation provides a huge amount to think about for anyone trying to campaign against any of the major problems in society.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.