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Poverty …Time for a rebrand?

By Martin Barrow

5 May 2016
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Are we too posh to talk about poverty? It would seem so, judging by the latest report from the venerable Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Founded 112 years ago, no organisation has done more than JRF to campaign, inform and support around issues associated with poverty in the UK in its mission to inspire social change.  Its latest work is as stark as anything it has ever published about deprivation. But its primary focus is not poverty but destitution.

JRF concludes that more than 1.25 million people are destitute in the UK, including some 300,000 children. What does JRF mean by ‘destitute’? Its definition, developed by experts and tested with general public, applies to people who lacked two or more basic essentials in one month. This means that, over this month, people have slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, gone without weather-appropriate clothes or gone without basic toiletries.

It is a hard-hitting message, highlighting the plight of a substantial number of people living in conditions that are clearly unacceptable in one of the richest countries in the world.  But to me it feels like the very same poverty that has been at the heart of JRF’s heroic campaigns for so many years.

So why is now being called ‘destitution’? Did poverty need a rebrand? Are we really that shallow?  Well, yes, it appears that we are. The language and tone of JRF’s report, which can be found here, is informed by work currently underway with FrameWorks Institute to develop a new way to talk about poverty in the UK.  The Child Poverty Action Group is also reviewing the best way to appeal for government action on child poverty.

It is an acknowledgement, long overdue, that the traditional approach to communicating with the public about poverty is not working. As Abigail Scott Paul, JRF’s Head of Engagement, blogged earlier this month ‘poverty’ as a word itself and as a concept is problematic and can be a barrier to build public support for the need to tackle it. Large sections of the community are resistant to the idea of ‘real’ poverty in the UK (compared to, say, poverty in parts of Africa and South East Asia). Many also feel that Britain’s poor only have themselves to blame, a claim often supported with references to flat screen TVs. These views have been reinforced by the Government’s move to drop child poverty targets in favour of a broader measure that includes educational attainment, worklessness and addiction, and not just income.

Will the Dickensian ‘destitution’ shift the dial in terms of public attitudes to poverty? I think it is a step in the right direction towards reframing the narrative in an affluent society. But I suspect we have further to go to find persuasive messaging. Ultimately, the most effective way to engage the public will be to put real people and real stories at the heart of our campaigns and reports. Call it poverty or call it destitution, we must never lose touch with the humanity of our mission. This is going to be particularly important for charities looking to raise money around issues relating to poverty. They are going to have to tread the fine line between turning people dealing with poverty into objects of pity, which is the danger of a word like destitution, and creating the empathy and sympathy needed to get people to give.