New narratives for discussing child poverty in New Zealand

Jess Berenston-Shaw

There is great enthusiasm these days for using research and science to inform policy across the political spectrum. However, this has not always translated into how we talk about the solutions that are most likely to influence key policy actors.

I have written a new report, Telling a new story about “child poverty” in New Zealand that is aimed at those working in child poverty research and policy. The report explores the ways that framing can help or hinder the public’s engagement with policy evidence, and the role of feelings, values and beliefs in people’s understanding of issues such as poverty. While a lot of research goes into finding solutions for child poverty, we also need to consider how to communicate effectively the reality of poverty to the public, as this will increase the likelihood that solutions are supported by politicians.

A key to more effective communication on research findings and recommendations is to embed them in more meaningful stories and narratives. Without doubt, a great place to start the conversation is a deep concern for the children of the next generation and those that follow, for their potential to live the lives they choose and to flourish doing so.

Finding which values different people hold is helpful for designing a story. The values that we as researchers and policy makers hold cannot be assumed to be the values that will usefully engage others. Research to understand public values and the various public narratives is required first. Using messengers that people trust and see as aligned with their values helps to establish the credibility of the message. Other useful techniques, that values-framing experts recommend, include:

  • Starting with what values we have identified as being helpful, and that we share and hold in common with each other;
  • Articulating the problem simply, and offering the chance to create solutions;
  • Drawing a picture of the positive future being sought: don’t focus on problems or the details of the method to get there.[1]

The goal is to create a cognitive environment in which we become more willing to consider information that may otherwise be outrightly rejected as not fitting with current beliefs. To accept the usefulness of these techniques does require the research and policy community to accept that no one undertakes a value-free process of weighing up new information and evidence, that all of us filter evidence through our values.

In the research that I have reviewed on poverty, there are clear indications that there are a wide range of values and beliefs held about poverty, which is positive as it means that there will be existing narratives that draw upon helpful values which can be amplified.


Useful strategies for talking about poverty:

  • Avoid talking about “needs”, or be very explicit about what “needs” mean in terms of why resources beyond basic needs (like trips for children, holidays, education, internet) are important for everyone’s wellbeing in a country like New Zealand. Do not assume that the public understands “needs” in the same way as researchers.
  • Link the provision of sufficient resources to self-determination. There is a strong core story called the Spectrum of Self-determination that focuses on choice. Resources are important, not because they satisfy needs or wants, but because they empower and enable people to choose freely, to innovate, and to determine their own path. If we link sufficient resources to self-determination we may persuade people against the idea that providing more than the very basic needs is overkill.
  • Avoid engaging consumer frames, because this may toggle people to romantic views of poverty; for example, people who survived in the Depression without all the “stuff” that children and families “want” these days.
  • Make New Zealand-based poverty real for people, providing examples from here. Avoid references to the deserving nature of people; rather highlight systems and policies that create and drive poverty. Do not compare poverty with other countries, because it may trigger beliefs about “real” poverty.
  • Tell a story about the system. To help overcome the individual-cause-of-poverty explanations, set up broader story about the systems, and then tell a person’s story within that system. Without that systemic basis, individual stories reinforce individualist thinking. To tell this story:
    • Make the systems a character in the story. Systems need to be characters who both act and are acted upon.
    • Explicitly highlight how poverty constrains choice by putting it in the context of opportunity. Link limited opportunities to the system.
    • Explain the sources of economic inequality. Discuss how, for example, markets are shaped and challenged by institutions and people. It will avoid triggering something called “economic naturalism” where people tend to believe the economy is a natural force that we cannot control, as opposed to made and shaped by people’s decisions.
    • Provide concrete solutions on how to restructure opportunities and prevent poverty.
  • Avoid painting politicians as bad people with nefarious motives; it can trigger beliefs that the game is rigged and that reform through government impossible. Focus instead on the actions that people in power have or have not taken.
  • Put numbers in context and explain them. Context-free numbers get interpreted through existing cultural narratives. Left unframed, numbers are interpreted in ways that can diverge totally from a communicator’s intent. Use numbers to tell a story and do not assume the story is the numbers.
  • Avoid repeating problematic cultural narratives, because it may have a backfire effect and reinforce the message. For example, starting with the idea that there is a social contract between those on welfare and society to work hard, while intended to defuse an opponent’s point, reminds people of problematic narratives. Instead start with the systemic issues.

More understanding of framing processes is required, including how to counter negative benefit frames, deepen understanding of economic and other systems, foster concern for vulnerable groups, and cultivate a sense of collective efficacy (to name a few). In New Zealand, we are missing a lot of this research. This matters especially because what is needed is a better understanding of the interface between core stories about Māori and Pacific people in poverty, as these are likely to be different and more problematic. There is important work to do to ensure that Māori values are neither assumed nor subsumed in the process of identifying which values are shared and helpful.

As researchers and policy makers working to overcome child poverty, it is very important that the tool we use – in this case, our words and language – is building the whare we need. We must not waste our good intentions by using the tool in the wrong way.


Jess’ report can be found here.


[1] Holmes, T., Blackmore, E., Hawkins, R., & Wakeford, T. (2011). The common cause handbook. Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC).

Jess Berenston-Shaw
About the author

Jess Berenston-Shaw

Jess Berentson-Shaw is a New Zealand researcher, writer and communicator with an interest in how we build public and political support for more inclusive and evidence-based policy. Her current work focuses on the role of values and beliefs in the development and implementation of inclusive public policy. Jess was awarded a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University in 2003 and has worked in the United Kingdom and New Zealand applying evidence to achieving equity in a variety of settings. She reviewed maternal and perinatal deaths at the Confidential Inquiry of Maternal Health in the United Kingdom and led the research team at the New Zealand Guidelines Group for some years. Her work spans the spectrum of health, wellbeing, social care and economics policy. In 2017 Jess published Pennies from Heaven, a book that investigates the most effective policy actions for moving families and children out of poverty. She is co-director of the not-for-profit research and policy collaborative The Workshop.