Limited shock value

No one, especially someone who mostly writes for a living, should
underestimate the power of words. But sometimes words are not
enough to change minds. Despite mountains of written evidence that
around one in three children live in poverty in Britain, the public
is still stubbornly sceptical about whether poverty exists on such
a scale.

This frustration prompted Barnardo’s to launch its latest
controversial advertising campaign. An opinion poll conducted by
the charity found that the vast majority of the public were unaware
of the one in three figure. Barnardo’s, along with other
anti-poverty organisations, are rightly concerned that this might
weaken public pressure for something to be done about it.

The charity’s “no silver spoons” advertisements have sparked much
debate. But have they changed public attitudes?

The answer, I suspect, is no. I hope I’m wrong. But the Barnardo’s
campaign comes up against a problem that all anti-poverty
organisations face. People are not convinced by the “one in three”
statistic because it does not confirm their own beliefs about
living standards in the UK.

Our understanding of what it is like to live in today’s Britain is
probably more distorted than ever. We are inundated with
Hello-style images of contemporary lifestyle, yet we
understand little about those living in our own communities. We
know more about the everyday habits of celebrities than about our

Anti-poverty campaigners face the challenge of opening our eyes to
the very real difficulties that millions face just getting by in
modern Britain. This does not make for comfortable viewing. Hence,
such images rarely find their way on to our TV screens. Nor do
those who experience hardship want to be labelled as poor. This all
conspires to ensure that poverty is more invisible than ever in the

The Barnardo’s campaign tries to jolt us into reality. It rightly
recognises that words are not sufficient tools to change attitudes
and has chosen three arresting images to capture our

But the pictures of infants with a cockroach, syringe or bottle of
methylated spirits in their mouths do not give credence to the one
in three statistic. They shock and, in some cases, offend. But they
don’t help answer the question “if one in three children live in
poverty in Britain, where are they all?”

The message might be more convincing if both the statistics and
images were presented differently. This month the government is
expected to publish its proposals for adopting a headline child
poverty measure. In the absence of an official indicator a default
measure (those living below 60 per cent of median income) is used
by policy makers, academics and the media. This measure has much
credibility among anti-poverty campaigners but not with the public.
Not only is it poorly understood, but – as public opinion research
bears out – it is not really believed.

One option being considered by the government is an approach that
has already been adopted in Ireland. This involves combining a
measure that compares people’s income against an average with a
so-called “deprivation index” – a measure of whether a person lacks
essential items (such as two pairs of shoes or a warm overcoat)
because they are living in poverty.

Some academics argue that this kind of combined indicator would
provide a more robust measurement of poverty. But it also has the
advantage of being more open to public interpretation – the lack of
essential items is something that the public can relate to more
closely than a percentage income poverty line. It can also be
represented visually. Many people may be shocked to learn how many
families in Britain have to go without essential commodities. But
they are more likely to believe that this represents poverty than
an image of an infant and a cockroach.

When Alistair Darling was social security secretary he used to say
“you know poverty when you see it”. The phrase probably rang true
with many public and voluntary sector workers who witness the
impact of poverty day in day out. But most people only occasionally
glimpse poverty in their community. They will not be convinced of
the scale of the problem unless their own understanding of poverty
more closely matches that of campaigners.

The Barnardo’s campaign may not convince the public of the extent
of child poverty in Britain. But it will have contributed something
towards this goal if it encourages us to consider the existence of
poverty hidden in our own communities.

Lisa Harker is chairperson of the Daycare Trust.

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