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‘We can't rely on the stats’: Anti-poverty campaigners urged to shift communication approach


Wednesday, 27th November 2019 at 4:18 pm
Luke Michael
A UK expert says work must be done to stop poverty being seen as a sign of personal failure


Wednesday, 27th November 2019
at 4:18 pm
Luke Michael


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‘We can't rely on the stats’: Anti-poverty campaigners urged to shift communication approach
Wednesday, 27th November 2019 at 4:18 pm

A UK expert says work must be done to stop poverty being seen as a sign of personal failure

The community sector needs to shift the narrative on poverty and win the hearts and minds of the public if it wants to achieve systemic change, a visiting UK expert believes.

Abigail Scott Paul, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), delivered a keynote speech at the Australian Council of Social Service national conference on Thursday.

Scott Paul discussed the lessons she learnt leading JRF’s award-winning Talking about Poverty project, which used new research to create a more effective way of communicating about UK poverty. 

She told Pro Bono News that in the UK there were some deeply entrenched views about poverty – namely that it was a sign of personal failure – that prevented the kind of policy action needed to create change.

“We’ve seen a decade of really unhelpful headlines around ‘benefit scroungers’, around people cheating the system, and those are really entrenched,” Scott Paul said. 

“We want to shift the narrative so people realise we can redesign the systems that trap people in poverty.”

Scott Paul said anti-poverty advocates needed to communicate much more strategically.

She noted that it wasn’t “fairness” that advocates should try and appeal to, but rather “values”.

“If you look at the issue of same-sex marriage, it was framed in a way that talked about the values of love, respect, and family, and that helped build much wider public support for change,” she said.

“Our research has found appealing to values is very powerful. So we’re trying to talk about poverty in a way that cuts into people’s sense of compassion and justice.

“So before we would say 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, now we talk about how it’s not right that so many people are trapped in poverty because of things like cuts to benefits.”

She said the Donald Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” and the UK Brexit tagline “Take Back Control”, both successfully tapped into people’s values rather than using facts.

“We can’t rely on the stats to persuade people. We might think that big and shocking facts make a difference, but they don’t persuade people who don’t already think like that,” she said.

“We have to get back to telling stories that focus on what is trapping people in poverty and pointing out the context around people’s lives.

“And if you do that, with those values, it is pretty hard to argue against it. We’re not ditching the evidence, but we’re being really careful about how we frame the evidence.” 

Scott Paul said the three ingredients to win hearts and minds was communicating values, strong storytelling and offering solutions.  

She said she had already seen a shift in the UK media discourse, with less “benefit scrounger” headlines and more headlines reflecting the language of anti-poverty advocates.

This language was also being picked up by government ministers, leading to some important policy wins.

She added that advocates around the world should work together to try and achieve change on a global level.

“Countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK are all really looking at how we can shift the narrative on poverty, and it needs to be a global voice for change,” she said.

“So I really hope that we can find a way to collaborate on this.”

Correction: This article has been amended to note there are 14 million people in poverty in the UK, not 40 million. 


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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One Comment

  • Avatar Catherine Plewman says:

    I am actually really angry. My husband & I have just had our really frustrating brush with Universal Credit. Since I am 73 I didn’t expect it to happen, but my husband Mick is a few years younger & has not quite reached the 66 retirement age. At the end of last year he had a successful liver transplant in Cambridge at Addenbrooks Hospital & the team was wonderful, However, he is certainly unable to return to his work as a self employed taxi driver working 60 hours a week when the Assessment person at DWP pronounced him fit, despite having sick notes frim our long term GP. We both attended 3 exhaustive interviews with DWP/UC after which he was disallowed any benefits for his job search, since as well as working beyond my pensionable age I also received a small pension from 2 of the international charitable organisations for which I had worked all of my working life. We were thus deemed outside the realm of UC & my husband denied benefits of any sort, whilst he was still committed to a job search, until next year. It seems outrageous!

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