Re-framing the Way We Talk about Poverty: Three Insights from the FrameWorks Institute


For organizations and individuals engaged in collective impact work, it is important to remain inclusive in the way you and your organization frame the issues and partners you work with. The recent FrameWorks Institute’s article Framing Two-Generation Approaches to Supporting Families offers valuable insights for framing, messaging, and shifting mental models in collective impact work.

Created in partnership with Ascend at the Aspen Institute, this resource outlines 10 framing shifts focused on advancing two-generation approaches to changing systems that support family wellbeing. The article offers a number of examples to support their recommendations through a number of communications formats and context.

While the article focuses on approaches to reframing the way we talk about family-wellbeing, it offers several insights on framing communications that challenge the language typically used in the social sector. As organizations continue to become more inclusive to push for systems change, they will need to adapt their lexicon and framing on the issues they are trying to solve and the people they work with.

While I encourage you all to read the article, below are three actionable insights to take away from “Framing Two-Generation Approaches to Supporting Families”:

1.      Place ‘Human Development’ at the forefront of the work: explain why people matter, how they develop, and how environments influence their potential.

The article encourages readers to shift the narrative so that people think of “’the problem’ as one that originates in society – not in the failures or flaws of the individuals experiencing it.” One interesting way the article suggests doing so, is by shifting people’s perspectives around social services from a simple transfer of tangible resources to efforts that build people’s skills and social capital.

Another way the article suggests shifting the narrative is to avoid using “othering” language. Many of us combating social issues are guilty of using language like “vulnerable”, “disenfranchised”, and “poor” to describe the communities we hope to include into society and our solution generating processes. This language can be fatalistic, paternalistic, and create unintended consequences. The article suggests using positive, inviting, and asset-based framing around “human potential” and focusing on the approaches to achieving it, rather than the challenges that impede it.

One thing to note: terms like “human potential” can also be problematic at times because it can reinforce an image that people are only valuable if they are working to reach some prescribed level of “full potential.” Other words that can help provide that “asset frame” could be “dignity” or “respect”—words that celebrate value at whatever current state a person is in.

2.      Consider using the simplest examples and metaphors to describe holistic/system-level approaches.

Systems are complex and large; making people skeptical of changes that can be made to address their challenges. It is important to elevate the simplest of examples to avoid communications traps. If you are able to provide a simple example of how systems can be better coordinated towards a desired effect, you will be less likely to lose people to the fears of complexity and change before they buy into the idea of systems-level work.

Similarly, the article claims that metaphors should be used to foster buy-in, but challenges readers to rethink the metaphors they choose. It argues that metaphors like the “cycle of poverty” and “social safety net” are outdated, individualistic, and politicized. The authors tested a new metaphor for childhood wellbeing that equates the positive components of a child’s environment to parts of a house, showing that social services help “construct well-being.” When testing this metaphor with the public, people drew on the comparison to understand that well-being includes financial, social, mental, and spiritual aspects—a holistic approach to addressing childhood development.

3.      Anticipate and navigate misconceptions by looking at scientific evidence and root causes.

Most social issues have a long history that has been politicized through misconceptions and false representations, often at the expense of those outside of power. The article recommends using scientific evidence where possible to depoliticize social struggles. For early childhood wellbeing, this means discussing the science behind brain development in children and their parents in the face of adversity.

Similarly, the article suggests deconstructing the complicated web of factors that create and perpetuate inequality. This means unpacking specific ways in which inequalities “are created, reproduced, and maintained” by helping the public understand the societal causes and consequences of poverty. Instead of naming harmful policies, programs, and historical events, we must do the legwork to explain how they work and specifically affect people in the present day.

In all, the article provides those working on social issues with much to consider about the ways we communicate within our own organizations, with our partners, and to the public. As practitioners engaged in collective impact work develop solutions to influence the systems impacting wellbeing, and work towards being more inclusive, this article offers guidance on ways to change communications styles to avoid unintentional, harmful consequences.


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