What Australians think about poverty - and how it can change (part 2)

Maiy Azize explains the important lessons of Anglicare Australia ‘s recent study of attitudes towards welfare and poverty for how anti-poverty advocates can use language effectively.

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In my previous post, I looked at Anglicare Australia’s recent study of social attitudes and two factors that shape the debate on poverty: our tightly targeted welfare system, and our perceptions of our fellow citizens.

But there is a third factor that’s just as important – language.

We have all seen what happens when language is abused. It can be used to demonise people and turn us against one another. It can be used to frighten us into retreat. And it can be used to deceive or distract us. It is impossible to overstate the role that language plays in shaping debates and attitudes.

As part of our study, we looked at the history of welfare crackdowns in Australia and overseas. We wanted to understand how people felt about the welfare state when it has been under attack, and language that the thought leaders of the day were using. Conventional wisdom tells us that these crackdowns must have been a response to public opinion – politicians demonising people on benefits because it was popular. But it turns out that this narrative is false.

In the UK, the welfare state was popular throughout the eighties and early nineties. This is in spite of the fact that the British Government under the Conservatives spent much of that time trying and failing to dismantle the safety net. It turns out that these early attacks on benefits were not popular – the British Social Attitudes Survey and research from Ipsos-MORI shows that attitudes didn’t harden until the late nineties.

So what happened? An analysis of parliamentary speeches by political scientist Tom O’Grady found a clear pattern: once the Labour Party under Tony Blair changed its rhetoric on welfare, the public changed its mind. From the mid-nineties and on, Labour spent less and less time talking about the benefits of the safety net and more time talking about problems with the system. This was a critical factor in changing public opinion.

Unfortunately this kind of research hasn’t been done in Australia. We don’t know much about Australian attitudes towards welfare before the 2000s. But we do know that the Australian consensus on mutual obligation and welfare between both sides of politics was forged in the late nineties, around the same as Blair’s ascension in the UK.

There are many ways to interpret what this means. Perhaps it tells us that labour parties and other progressive actors are more influential in debates on income and welfare than their conservative counterparts. But it also shows us that governments cannot shape attitudes on their own without a political consensus. This consensus is critical. It is the sum of all of the language we use – what we say on purpose, and what we imply by omission.

Strangely, many anti-poverty advocates can’t see their own role in forging this consensus. Instead they see themselves as passive forces, reacting to shifts in opinion instead of shaping them. The consensus is one of mutual obligation and scarcity, they reason, and many accept it as inevitable. But there is almost no evidence that the current ‘consensus’ is popular with the public. Its existence depends on the fact it has not been challenged.

 Our belief in this consensus comes through in our language. As part of our study of social attitudes, we conducted an in-depth language analysis that looked at how we as advocates communicate with the public. We found that we spend more time repeating opposing arguments instead of making our own. We saw this when we studied statements like ‘Let’s not replay the same old inaccurate story – that Australia’s young unemployed people are lazy and don’t want to work.’

These examples stem from the idea that the public doesn’t agree with us about poverty and welfare. That idea was debunked by our own study and by countless others. But it also stems from the idea that we need to mention an opposing argument in order to rebut it. This is at odds with research showing that drawing attention to opposing arguments makes people more likely to accept them. George Lakoff has shown how this can backfire – when Richard Nixon famously said that ‘I am not a crook’, it only drew attention to his corruption. 

When we accept an opposing position as our starting point, and then repeat it, we are adding to the false consensus. We should be doing everything we can to avoid repeating the messages that we don’t agree with.

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A worrying finding from our research is that we speak about people in a way that is totally at odds with how they see themselves. We asked Anglicare clients to describe their own lives and experiences. They told us that they do not want to be victimised, or spoken about as though they are objects. This is a challenge for our sector. We want to show how poverty can break bodies and destroy lives. So we end up speaking about people in such a grim and disempowering way that they cease to be people at all. They have no agency, no individuality, we couldn’t possibly imagine ourselves in their position. All of this makes it harder to build support for change. It also paves the way for government control over people’s lives.

Think instead of how we speak about regional communities, especially farmers. We do not talk about them as poverty-stricken, disaster-ridden, and dependent. We would never dream of telling them how to spend their money or live their lives, even though they are much more likely to get government payments than other groups. Instead they are resilient and resourceful. Everybody else living in poverty deserves the same respect. Their own resourcefulness and sacrifice is often the only thing keeping them afloat. They should get credit for managing an impossible situation.

Turning people into objects is only part of the problem. We also found that we speak about people in a way that is defensive and qualified. We tend to focus on those who are sick, incapacitated, or already in paid work. We single out these groups and emphasise that they should not live in poverty. But this buys into the idea of a ‘deserving poor’ by equivocating about who deserves help.

We do not need to do this. The evidence shows that Australians are already sympathetic to people in poverty. It also shows us that equivocation doesn’t work. Of all the value statements in our national Ipsos survey, the one that got the most support was the statement that nobody deserves to live in poverty (86 per cent agreement). Statements that were more qualified or focused on specific groups attracted less support. This might seem like a surprising result – you may think the fact that someone is working or sick would make people more sympathetic to their plight. Instead, the clearer value statement proved to be much more powerful.

It’s a strange contradiction that so many of us, including professional communicators and campaigners, are taught to qualify our statements to attract support. This is a mistake. We should not shy away from simply and clearly communicating our beliefs.

These are only some of the issues we uncovered with our use of language. There are too many to explore here. But the key lesson is that language is central to how debates on poverty have evolved. It is both a symptom and a cause, and we all need to be much more deliberate about how use it.

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The alternative is to accept a fake consensus – that Australians are selfish, that they don’t care about people who need help, and that our safety net can never be restored. Our study found that none of these things are true. Poverty is a structural crisis, not an individual one, and Australians know it. It is a diabolical problem that so many of us have accepted a narrative that so few of us believe. 

For too long advocates have viewed the public as a problem to solve. We can see this in some of the unedifying reactions to the 2019 Federal election result. But the public, and public opinion, should not be treated as an obstacle. Instead the public must be seen as allies.

Our challenge now is to develop a language that embraces and engages them.

Maiy Azize is the Director of Media and Communications at Anglicare Australia, and the author of ‘The Real Story: What Australians Think About Poverty and How We Shape the Debate’. It is available online at www.anglicare.asn.au/publications/state-of-the-family-report.