Is I, Daniel Blake the best way to argue for tackling UK poverty?

Can a film about UK poverty make a difference to a bitter national debate? Abigail Scott Paul compares the story to new research on public perceptions.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film, may have exposed the realities of living in poverty in the UK and given a mainstream platform to people who are seldom heard, but the debate around it has epitomised the divisive, bitter and unproductive nature of the national conversation on what to do about it.

While its director no doubt hopes this expose will provoke a reaction among its viewers to demand change – you would have to be extremely thick-skinned to remain unaffected by the story that unfolds on the screen – will it make a difference?

I, Daniel Blake frames its story around two characters trying to navigate their way through the benefit system. It is easy to identify and empathise with the two protagonists: both are shown to be of good character and, despite trying to do the right thing, are thwarted by a confusing, and at times punitive, benefit system. 

Over the course of the film, you feel their frustration as they face barriers and see the slow erosion of their self-esteem, self-belief and confidence. The stigma and shame of their situations become too hard to bear. The consequences are devastating.

The film is well researched and the issues it raises are in tune with what many people experience. But is this the most effective way of framing the message Loach wishes to convey? Will it encourage the public to demand action? Will it push politicians to act?

Research out later this month by the FrameWorks Institute in partnership with JRF, into how the public thinks about poverty, highlights the difficulty in presenting an argument on the ‘deservingness’ of people on benefits – a tactic used by Loach and many anti-poverty campaigners. 

The FrameWorks Institute has identified a dominant pattern of thinking in public understanding that it refers to as the ‘Culture of Poverty’. This way of thinking gives rise to the stereotype of the ‘benefit scrounger’. Any effort to debunk this perception or unpick this mental model, through the presentation of statistics or, in the case of the film, a story about the will, drive and deservingness of people receiving benefits, only serves to entrench this way of thinking and drive it deeper into public thinking and discourse.

Drawing on something that invokes this ‘culture of poverty’ model in people’s minds short-circuits the conversation and does not lead to any meaningful change on the issue. ‘This is a no-win position for anti-poverty advocates,’ say the report’s authors, because this model places the issue within individual worthiness, rather than in the causes of poverty. The answer is to find a new frame, rather than continuing to occupy one based on counterproductive assessments of deservingness.

Without doubt, I, Daniel Blake is an important counter to the arguably corrosive media portrayal of people in poverty that has dominated the mainstream media over the past five years. However, to cultivate broader public support for change, campaigners need evidence-informed communication strategies to engage more effectively with the public, who (rightly or wrongly) think about poverty in a different way to experts. 

The FrameWorks Institute research highlights better and more effective ways to frame UK poverty, which could improve public understanding and support for policies to solve it. We will be working to test these over the coming months and will be sharing the findings with those working to #solveukpoverty.

  • JRF is working with the National Children’s Bureau on the Talking about Poverty project with the FrameWorks Institute. The report will be published at a conference in London later this month. For more information about the project please contact Abigail Scott Paul.