Are we losing the story war?

Liam PurcellUnless we can alter the way people think and feel about poverty in the UK, we will never tackle its root causes. How can we tell a story that will really change hearts and minds?

This personal post from our Communications Manager Liam Purcell explores some challenging questions…

Those of us who work to tackle UK poverty know that the single biggest obstacle we face is the hostility or indifference of public opinion. Most people accept the powerful stories and attitudes about poverty which are reinforced every day by politicians and the media. They believe that people only end up in poverty by mismanaging their budgets; that there is widespread benefit fraud, and that benefits are generous; that work is an easy route out of poverty; or even that there is no real poverty in this country.

These narratives about poverty connect with people because they are all attached to a coherent worldview which promotes a particular set of values. They say that it is important to be self-reliant; that dishonest people will take advantage if we are too generous and trusting; that we should support politicians who will be cautious and prudent with public spending; that wealth and poverty are the natural results of moral or immoral behaviour. It’s easy to promote these values because in recent decades our society has become more consumerist and individualistic, and tends to measure everything in terms of economic worth.

Looking at the work done by anti-poverty organisations and campaigns, I’m finding it  difficult to see much that really challenges that dominant narrative.

 

Many groups are doing excellent ‘frontline’ work – direct support for people in need. Food banks, advice services, drop-in centres. This is vital – but (to use a common metaphor for this kind of work) after you’ve pulled a lot of people out of the river, you have to start asking how they ended up in the river in the first place. And more and more people are ending up in the river.

Great things can be achieved by supporting people in poor communities to tell their stories and become leaders and campaigners, through approaches like community organising and empowerment. Church Action on Poverty has proved the value of this kind of work – but we’ve also seen it become harder and harder to deliver in a time of austerity, as funding is slashed and community groups struggle just to survive.

Another key part of Church Action on Poverty’s work – and that of other organisations – has always been lobbying and advocacy work to change the policies that create poverty. Our dedicated supporters do great work and achieve real change. But we have to focus on relatively small, ‘winnable’ issues to make best use of our limited resources. For example, we might influence policy on high-cost credit – but as long as ‘strivers vs skivers’ rhetoric is being repeated by popular newspapers every day, we have very little chance of changing benefits policy on a large scale.

A third common approach is myth-busting – challenging the prejudices, distortions and misonceptions that support the dominant narrative about poverty. Projects like Truth and Lies About Poverty and Who Benefits? pick apart the myths and lies very effectively. But there’s evidence that this approach just won’t work. People don’t view the world purely in logical and rational terms – we all look at things through the ‘frame’ of our own values, rejecting things that don’t fit the frame even if they’re presented with strong supporting evidence. Just telling the truth may not be enough to change people’s minds. More alarmingly, the psychologist George Lakoff has found that myth-busting can even reinforce the myths in people’s minds by focusing attention on them.

 

There’s something that all of these approaches have in common. None of them tries to influence public debate by offering a vision of how things could be, a coherent worldview connected to strong moral values.

But the people and groups who promote the ‘dominant frame’ – the myths and lies about poverty – are consciously and deliberately setting out to tell a story that will influence society’s values. Media outlets are owned by billionaires who benefit from rising inequality and austerity policies. Margaret Thatcher deliberately designed her policies to encourage a more individualistic, consumerist worldview – as she said:

“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

Their narratives about poverty are used to justify austerity policies which punish the poorest and most vulnerable, while allowing the rich to grow richer. The widespread acceptance of those narratives means that people in poverty are ever more marginalised and excluded. And all of this means that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, despite our best efforts.

That’s because we are losing the ‘story war’. Most of the time, we aren’t even putting up a fight.

All of the work I outlined above remains vital. But if we are serious about tackling the root causes of UK poverty, we have to find a way of telling a better story to our supporters and the rest of society.

We need to talk more about the moral values that drive our work. The equal value of all human beings. Empathy and mutual responsibility. Speaking truth to power. Social justice. Accountability.The Common Good. Transformation. Active listening. Solidarity. Hope. By demonstrating and speaking about our values, we can strengthen them in society as a whole. And if we tell stories that are based on values rather than dry facts and statistics, people will listen.

We have to offer a positive vision of the world we want to see – not just criticising how things are or focusing on individual problems, but offering a story that can inspire people. (Church Action on Poverty and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland are working towards this by inviting churches to take part in our Good Society conversation.)

We need to do better at communicating our story. This might mean finding common cause with other organisations working on related issues, so that we speak in coordinated ways that reflect the values underpinning all of our work. And, especially for Church Action on Poverty, it might mean doing more to challenge and resource the churches to speak out publicly and prophetically. Just this week, we saw what can be achieved when church leaders speak out together.

There is real hope that we can make this happen. Churches have risen to the challenge of austerity and the hunger crisis over the last year in an unprecedented way, and many people in the churches are asking the same questions. Theologian Greg Smith has said on his blog:

“As Christians committed to the equal value of all human beings before God, and to greater generosity and equality in society, we need to tell convincingly a counter narrative… And we will need to find powerful communicators with access to the media to publicly and prophetically declare a different truth.”

Church Action on Poverty will be exploring some of these questions as we plan our work for the next year. But what do you think? If you have ideas about how we can tell a better story, please share them here – and remember to join the Good Society conversation.

4 thoughts on “Are we losing the story war?

  1. Liam, that’s a very thought-provoking post. Along with so many others who help at the ‘sharp end’ we’re often so busy pulling people out of the river that we don’t stop to worry about how they’re all falling in. And those who would want the church to stay out of politics would keep it that way. But the church’s role isn’t just to mop up after the government’s failed policies, it has to have a voice in criticising and re-shaping those policies as well. Working on how to do that is the ‘long game’, but it is essential.

  2. hi liam poverty is a biblical fact of life. however has anyone ever stopped to think how people manage when their ESA is withdrawn. I know how dam difficult it has been for Alan and I for the last two years living on his pension and only £21 DLA. recently I went to the hospital for a diabetic check up and was told I am fat because I eat to much. my reply was how can we do that on £20 a week we scrimp and scrape and are often given bits and bobs by our friend ten years ago it would of been the other way round.
    I was dismissed from work when our local council occupational health officer told them I was unfit for my job as a neighbourhood warden for a year I live on the money I got when they were faced with an industrial tribunal and they conceded to pay me out not even 2 month wages in effect but that lasted for a year. because we spent very little and it was followed up with a single status payment before I went on to ESA so in theory we had lived and survived paying bills on less than half a months wages for some time,
    however when government implement the 365 day clause into ESA I lost all but lower rate DLA and then they changed the age of retirement as well so now at almost 62 I don’t get my pension till 4 month after my 62 birthday and then it will be at a reduced rate. so you see it isn’t always those who are seen to milk the system but people hidden like ourselves who struggle and live way below the official poverty line.
    good luck on you campaign

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Rose. Of course, there are far more people in situations like yours, and far fewer people who “milk the system”, than you might imagine from reading the newspapers.

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