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Political mindsets

Talking about coronavirus and poverty: a guide to framing your messages

How we talk about poverty matters. And amidst the stress, uncertainty and pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, our words are more important than ever. This guide is here to help you frame your messages on coronavirus and poverty - to help your words inspire action and drive change.

Written by:
Tamsyn Hyatt and Paul Brook
Date published:

The COVID-19 outbreak is having a far-reaching impact across our society. What does it mean for people already in poverty before it began? How should our Government respond? And how can we prevent more of us from being swept into poverty?

How we answer these questions matters, in two ways:

  1. For right now. We need people to act now: to make sure that those of us who are struggling to keep our heads above water aren’t left to sink.
  2. For the future. We need people to act after the pandemic: to make sure that everyone can access a lifeline when they need it most - one designed to pull us out of poverty and away from danger.

The stories we tell about poverty in this pandemic, and how we tell them, can affect what action is taken. They shape what people believe is necessary and possible. Who they think needs support. And who should act to provide it.

This five-step guide to talking about coronavirus and poverty will help you tell stories that inspire action and drive change, with examples of messaging to try. It draws on existing research on talking about poverty, our framing poverty toolkit (this explains our approach to framing, and gives you the basics to get started), and the FrameWorks framing COVID-19 series. We’ll keep working on it in response to your feedback and the latest developments. Get in touch if you have something to share.

Recap: what is framing?

Framing means making deliberate choices about how we communicate. It’s about understanding how people think and feel, and telling stories that change hearts and minds.

The tools and techniques we use to talk about poverty are based on research by the FrameWorks Institute with 20,000 members of the public. This research showed how we could talk about poverty in a different way. One that effectively communicates why it matters, and what we can do about it.

Step 1

Explain the growing challenges faced by people in low-paid work

This turbulent time is showing just how much we rely on each other. We’re seeing the crucial role of cleaners, shop workers, delivery drivers and many others in low-paid, insecure work. People already pushed to the financial brink are keeping everyone going. And are facing growing challenges as this pandemic continues.

We can use metaphor to help people understand what’s happening: talk about constant pressure, to emphasise the extra risks and challenges now faced by people in poverty.

People know what pressure is like, and what can go wrong when the pressure is too great. We know that poverty puts constant pressure on people. If the pressure builds up, from things like low wages, rising rents and childcare costs, we can be pushed to breaking point. A sudden increase in pressure caused by this pandemic - like job loss or ill health – can quickly become a flood that pushes us into much deeper hardship.

Use constant pressure alongside the currents metaphor in our framing poverty toolkit. Currents explains how people can be swept into poverty by forces outside their control, and what it’s like to be struggling.

What you could say

This pandemic is showing just how much we need each other to get by - and bringing to light the crucial role of cleaners, shop workers, delivery drivers and many others in low-paid, insecure work. People in these positions are often already at the brink: battling a rising tide of high rents, growing bills, juggling health conditions and caring responsibilities. We need to do right by each and every person in our society, and make sure those hardest hit are not pushed into deeper hardship.

JRF example

People in more deprived areas are less likely to have jobs where they can work from home. This means they may have to face a very significant drop in income or keep going to work, facing greater risks of catching the virus. They are also more likely to live in overcrowded homes, increasing the risk for whole families…. [Putting this right] means rethinking how we treat the lowest paid members of our society who have sustained us and kept us safe during this crisis.


To use ‘constant pressure’, call to mind an external force that:

  1. is constant;
  2. builds up over time; and
  3. could be lessened, with the right support.

Step 2

Make the case for strengthening our public services

This moment is also showing just how much we depend on our public services. Like our NHS and social security system, where demand has surged as more and more of us are without reliable income.

To get through this pandemic, we need our Government to strengthen these essential services. Now and in the future. We can make a powerful case by focusing on what the Government should do (instead of what it is not doing) - and explaining why this action is needed.

Build on the currents metaphor to explain how a strong social security system should keep us afloat. For example:

  • local welfare assistance, as a lifeline to pull us back from the brink and away from danger
  • Universal Credit, as an anchor to hold us steady in these turbulent times.

What you could say

Our social security system, like other public services, is a vital lifeline helping many of us weather this storm. Government must act to make sure that no-one is left to sink.

Or: Our Government must act to strengthen the public services that should hold us steady in tough times. Without the anchor of a strong social security system, far more of us will be swept into poverty as this pandemic continues.

JRF example

We believe that this increase highlights how threadbare the existing lifeline is for people who are desperately holding on, and how rapidly their situation can change from just managing to needing to turn to a food bank. The appropriate response must be to protect people’s incomes and address the root causes of financial hardship. From a letter to the Chancellor from the Trussell Trust, JRF and partners.

An anchored boat.
Anchored boat


Use metaphor to explain how things could and should be. This allows us to hold public services to account without undermining the need for them.

When we explain - and not just assert - why something is needed, we increase people’s understanding and support for action.

Step 3

Call for justice, as well as compassion

Our news and social feeds are filled with stories of compassion, bravery and selflessness. We’re rightly proud of everyone who is working against the odds to keep our society going. And of the acts of kindness that inspire hope in dark times.

This moment has awakened our compassion. But for everyone to reach the lifeline they need, certain things must be put right in our society. We can make a moral case for changing the wider context that coronavirus has worsened and/or revealed.

Appeal to people’s values of justice, as well as compassion, to make the case that we should do right by each and every person in our society.

There are a few traps we can fall into when talking about coronavirus and poverty. Here’s how we can avoid them.

Terms and phrases
Instead of Try
Talking about how lockdown means we’re all in the same boat Using constant pressure to show how those of us already struggling risk being pushed deeper into poverty
Suggesting that the pandemic doesn’t discriminate, as anyone can catch the virus Explaining the health risks faced by people in poverty - who are more likely to have existing conditions, weakened immune systems and be more exposed to the virus
Talking about how people are being pushed into unusual hardship because of the pandemic Using compassion and justice to show that people in poverty were already pushed into unacceptable hardship
Talking about vulnerability Talking about how some of us are more at risk - and it’s right for all of us to have what we need to be well
Stories of individual heroism and compassion Putting heroic, compassionate stories in context - and evoking justice to call for wider social change

What you could say

We might all be in the same storm but we’re not all in the same boat. It’s right that everyone caught in this storm has a lifeline within reach - one that can pull us out of danger when we need it most.

JRF example

It can never be right that someone’s life chances are so profoundly affected by where they live or how much money their family has. JRF's @Helen_Barnard on startling new figures published today from @ONS.

JRF's @Helen_Barnard


Take a look at page 13 of our framing poverty toolkit for words and phrases that activate compassion and justice for all.

Step 4

Balance ‘we need to do this’ with ‘we can do this’

The COVID-19 outbreak is an emergency situation that demands an urgent response. And when it feels like our world is falling apart, it’s natural to reach for words that reflect this feeling.

Our words need to do more than this. We need to show the urgency and severity of what’s happening now, without losing sight of the ability to put things right. We need to combat fatalism and inspire people to act.

The responses we call for should be ambitious and proportionate; with clear ‘cause and effect’ explanations that link action to change. By helping people to understand what needs to be done - and also how we can do it - we bring everyone with us.

What you could say

Coronavirus is a national emergency. Without action to help us weather this storm, thousands of us will be swept into poverty - or left to sink. But our Government can act to strengthen our social security system; both now and as we move through this moment. [Solution] is within our reach - and will be a lifeline for everyone who is struggling.

JRF example

This support would go a long way in covering the additional costs families are facing during the lockdown, mitigating some of the disadvantage children have faced during school closures, and supporting them through the following recession. The measure would be quick and simple to implement and would ensure increased funds are well-targeted at children most at risk of hardship. Read Iain Porter’s blog, 30 April.


Avoid talking about social security as ‘a safety net.’ This limits people’s understanding of the social security system to one-off support in times of crisis - and not something that can provide longer-term support, when it’s needed.

Step 5

When the time is right, talk about redesigning our economy and support systems

As we move through the later stages of this pandemic, we will all start to reflect on what happens next. COVID-19 is not a one-off crisis for those of us in poverty. Poverty was here before the outbreak, and we need to make sure it’s not forgotten about - or made worse - as recovery begins.

We can help people see the changes in our society that are needed by connecting the past (the poverty that’s created, and revealed, by this pandemic) to the present (what action we should take now), and the future (what values and outcomes matter to us all).

We also need to make sure that our calls to action aren’t dismissed as idealistic or unachievable. Poverty can often seem like a huge, unsolvable problem. But it’s not inevitable. It helps to show people that systems like the economy and social security - that can push people into, or out of poverty - have been designed. So they can be redesigned to work for everyone.

When this time in our history has passed, we can - and should - redesign our economy and support systems so we can carry on protecting each other in the long term.

What you could say

When the lockdown is over, when the pandemic is over, when the emergency response is over, we know that for millions of people, poverty will not be over. Now’s the time for us to get this right - to keep looking out for each other; to keep compassion and justice at the heart of our communities; to keep strengthening the systems that support us all when times are tough. As we rebuild, we can make sure our systems are designed to work for each and every one of us.

jrf example

History will recount how the UK responded to the coronavirus outbreak. We must ensure that the story demonstrates our commitment to protecting each other from harm, through our design of just policies and practices that unlock support and provide security for every member of our society. Read Iain Porter’s blog, 26 March.


Use an inclusive ‘we’ - one that refers to everyone, not just your organisation - to help people see how they have a role in creating change.

What next?

We want to make sure this guide stays timely, relevant and useful as we move through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

We’ll be updating it in response to the latest developments and your feedback, so please tell us how you’re getting on with it. And if there’s anything we haven’t covered that you would find useful.


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