Messaging on Income and Wealth Inequality

This is a “high-income nation”: No one should be worrying about how to afford the essentials.

High income nations like ours can afford a decent life for all, where every whānau can thrive, not just survive. But here, for many, it’s not currently being realised. Too many young people live in households where they feel hopeless.

Read our full document below for key messages, and for questions to challenge political candidates with this election.

How to sell the message that income and wealth inequality in Aotearoa needs to be reduced

The focus must be on the key message ie the problem, inequality. Inequality is the gap between the rich and the poor. The increase in inequality in NZ over the last 35 years has happened because our politicians built an economy that delivered the bulk of its rewards to those who already had plenty and delivered an unfair proportion to those at the bottom ie the low waged and beneficiaries.

In real terms we’ve cut wages and benefits while giving the rich more. This produces inequality with all its attendant problems of exacerbating many social ills, destroying the cohesiveness of society, and certainly not helping the economy.

Principles of general messaging

Remember you’re trying to shift public attitudes.

People see the world primarily through ‘frames’: assemblages of values, beliefs and experiences that they use to structure the world, make sense of the information that comes to them, and accept or reject the facts you present.

A good message ‘toggles’ people into the frame you want. We want “frames” of nurturing values (compassion, empathy, support, community, etc) and we want to show how those values lead to a better world for all.

So don’t start with facts. Establish the frame first—compassion, justice and a fair society are important to all. And before you get to the facts, connect with listeners. Personal stories are great for that.

Use the structure ‘Shared value + Problem + Policy Solution’. Start your message with the shared value, the kind of world we want, the kind of people we want to be, the kind of community we want to be part of. Then set up your problem (inequality) as the issue getting in the way of that world. Finally, introduce your policy solution to the problem – e.g. the “Living Wage”, better benefits, higher taxes on the rich, and better housing for all. Absolutely free health care and schooling.

A good message is one that energises people already sympathetic to you, because they are the ones who will go out and spread that message across the country and get the 60% in the middle on board . So good messages should:

  1. Ignite the base—they are the best carriers of our message
  2. Persuade the persuadables—convince them our values are worth supporting
  3. Confound the opposition—they are not going to agree with us anyway.

So specifically:

  1. Start with a shared positive vision. What do we want for our country.
  2. Describe the barrier or problem.
  3. Tell the listener the solution ie smaller gaps between incomes, the wealthy and the poor.
  4. Then tell them how we achieve these smaller gaps.

Use intrinsic values to lead conversations. Compassion and justice are important.
Avoid leading with facts. Start with stories about people and families.
Make it clear that people in politics are responsible.
Explain how inequality has grown in real terms and explain how it can be reduced.
Use the language that works for you.

Make the opponents clear and identify their causes.

Use the structure ‘Shared value + Problem + Policy Solution’.

Some General Thoughts that Might be Helpful

Effective messaging means using the words best for you to achieve your goal.

A great message doesn’t say what is popular—it makes popular what needs to be said.

We must talk more about what we are for and not what we are against and we should emphasise positive outcomes and values. Be solution focused to inspire confidence. Share a vision for a better future. People want to be part of a better future—it motivates and inspires them. Talk about how life will be better rather than expound policies.

If you are talking about a problem, individualise, ie people rather than institutions. Connect with people’s emotions. People may not remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel.

Avoid assumptions based on political affiliation.

We are a successful country, but that success is not shared, and it’s hurting us all.

New Zealand is a successful and diverse society. We celebrate our extraordinary environment. And we have a commitment to fairness.

We can all help to create an economy that generates significant rewards.

But our politicians have constructed the economy in a way that delivers most of those rewards to people who already have plenty and leaves too many New Zealanders in need.

Ordinary people are more productive than ever but are not sharing in the wealth they’ve helped create.

In the last 30 years incomes for the richest New Zealanders have more than doubled. Incomes for the poorest have barely increased at all.

The problem is inequality

Inequality destroys fairness. Some people receive fair less than they deserve and other people far more – some have too much and others are left in need.

Inequality robs our children of opportunities like an equal chance for a good education. If their parents can’t afford to buy them a computer or schoolbooks, what chance do they have of learning properly.

Inequality breeds distrust because people become separated from one another e.g. living in different neighbourhoods.

Inequality is not inevitable. It is the result of decisions by politicians who decide how taxes are raised and spent and those who decide how much people get paid.

Inequality inescapably means people will be left in need.

While some have more than plenty, others don’t have enough for life’s necessities – a dry house, decent food, access to education.

Just a note about ‘poverty’ as ‘inequality’ and ‘poverty’ are often confused. Poverty is a state of just the poor whereas inequality is a state of us all. Poverty is also a serious problem for New Zealand. Some people find poverty an abstract idea, or think it happens only in the Third World. We need to acknowledge that there is both absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is where the people concerned don’t have enough to live on. Relative poverty is where, for example, families can’t give their kids enough to access normal opportunities for their community like extra help where needed, extra curricular activities, field trips etc, whereas they see many in society who have easy access to all these things.

New Zealand has both absolute poverty – the one child in seven whose parents just can’t afford basics like raincoats or keeping the power on – and a bigger group in relative poverty/need, who can’t give their kids the opportunities and help they need, like computers for school.

So poverty is part of inequality. Inequality contains poverty and so is the wider encompassing problem and so tackling inequality includes tackling poverty.

‘In need’ may be better than ‘poverty’. Talking about people being ‘in need’ or not being able to afford basic needs may help make the problem more concrete.

Children in New Zealand are missing out :

1 in 7 New Zealand children live in families that can’t afford anywhere to live, any breakfast or warm clothes. This is severe need.

Another 1 in 7 children miss out on opportunities because their families can’t afford for them to go on school trips, have computers, have friends around for dinner.

And this is because so much of the country’s income is going to the highest earners.

How can we fix it?

We need to pressure the government to act urgently to break down the barriers between the rich and the poor so that everyone can share in New Zealand’s success by:

  • ensuring that all families with children get the income support they need
  • linking benefits to average wages
  • ensuring the wealthy, who have also drawn from our country’s common pool of resources, pay their fair share of tax
  • encouraging employers to provide a living wage

Since the 1980s our country’s level playing field has been tilted against the poor.

Politicians’ decisions to cut benefits, weaken workers’ bargaining power, and allow the wealthy to contribute much less than their fair share to the pool of our country’s common resources have resulted in huge income imbalances.

While everyone has been affected, Maori and women have felt the pain most.

What does that income imbalance look like?

Since the 1980s income for the richest New Zealanders has doubled.

Incomes for the poorest New Zealanders has barely changed.

Middle New Zealanders have seen only relatively small increases.

We have too far many children living in need.

How did New Zealand change from being fair in 1980 to unfair today?

Actually, it was never fair for women, for Maori or for Pasifika. But it was fairer than it is today, and much fairer for white men.
The political decision making of 1980s and 90s forged a division between New Zealand’s rich and the rest, a divide which grew faster than in any other developed country.
Working for Families in the early 2000s helped restore a little balance.
The Global Financial Crisis has increased the imbalance again.

Who has New Zealand’s Wealth?

In New Zealand the wealthiest 10% have over half New Zealand’s wealth.
The poorest 50% have less than 5%.

But is it bad to be wealthy?

There’s nothing wrong with people doing well. But people who enjoy wealth need to acknowledge the benefits they continue to receive from the rest of us: the roads they drive on, hospitals, schools, universities. They have drawn deeply from our pool of resources.

They must acknowledge this by making a fair contribution to sustaining, and even improving, those resources for the future by replenishing the pool.

And it’s only fair that, being wealthy, they contribute more than people who are less fortunate.

There is also a link between inequality and reduced opportunity.

We like to think we all have equal opportunities. But without enough income to get through the week, families can’t even enjoy decent housing let alone believe they can fulfil their dreams.

Do we want to live in a world where children’s future depends on who their parents are or where everyone has equal opportunity? To achieve that, we have to fix New Zealand’s income imbalance.

What do we really want to achieve?

We want to be as equal as the most equal developed countries in the world

That would mean people’s future wouldn’t depend on who their parents are

Far fewer people would be in need. Social trust and cohesion would increase

We would be a much fairer society

We need to, and must, make it happen.

Good messaging.