Because of constructive criticism of some of my organization’s archaic language, I asked the Mission Based Massachusetts Listserv, a nonprofit discussion list, what terms they use in place of “poor people”. Below are all of the responses I got, which were awesome!

Some terminology…

  • low-income
  • under-resourced
  • under-served ( Barbara humorously notes that “overserved” is a euphemism for intoxicated)
  • people living in poverty
  • historically and persistently marginalized groups

(thanks Michelle, Felicia, and others who are quoted below)

Some general strategies…

  • Use a preposition: Instead of “poor children” the phrase “children from low income households”. Therefore, it’s not the subject themselves, but rather their circumstances. (thanks Barbara!)
  • Use a specific measure, like “125% of the federal poverty threshold” or “50% of area median income,” whatever’s most appropriate in the context.
  • For a grant proposal, look at the language the grantmaker is using and follow their lead. (thanks Dennis!)
  • Think of the program as asset based rather than deficit based: people who benefit end up being associated with the problem and not the solution (thanks Alan!).
  • “Describing the populations we want to serve as ‘marginalized’ or ‘most vulnerable’ makes our donors feel good about themselves, but at the risk of objectifying people, using a dominant culture’s description of them as somehow Other. We try to incorporate this awareness into our outreach materials by assuming that the people we serve will be reading the materials. How would they feel about this description? How would they describe themselves? Does a description assume that the people have brought their situation on themselves? Does it assume that the people are simply victims and not actors in their lives? Does the language carry implicit judgment? Calling an activity ‘drug abuse’ carries many more judgments and assumptions than calling it ‘drug use.’ (thanks Kathy!)

“‘Working poor is a helpful phrase for those who are working, which reminds people that we aren’t talking about ‘welfare queens’, a term I fear may still have resonance….I like to remind people what the actual Federal Poverty Guidelines are. We know, but many people outside our profession don’t actually know how low it is, and if you take a minute and ask people to think about how it compares to their own household income, you can see people digest what that means.” (thanks Michelle!)

To note, from the 2008 Federal Poverty Guidelines, an individual making less than $10,400 is in poverty, while for a household of 4 poverty is earning less than $21,200 (in the lower 48 states, slightly more in Hawaii and Alaska). As of 2006 there were 36.5 million Americans in poverty (according to the US Census Bureau).

Some said that the terminology wasn’t the issue…

  • “I’m poor. It doesn’t upset me when people say I’m poor. It does upset me when the thought police waste everyone’s time talking about language issues instead of actually fighting poverty.” (thanks Pat!)
  • “There’s nothing degrading about saying someone is poor. It’s an insult only if you believe their poverty indicates their own moral failing, and THAT’s an antiquated attitude.” (thanks Dennis!)

And a related example…

“This is interesting to me because I work at a prison education organization. We have lots of materials that talk about ‘prisoners’. An ex-prisoner recently called that word into question, saying that it was dehumanizing and he preferred to be referred to as a person (perhaps incarcerated person?). However, I work with a group of folks who deliberately call themselves Ex-Prisoners. So there’s no easy answer.” (thanks Mea!)

External Resources:

Michael pointed me to two great resources:

  • Two Penny Project: To build public support for human services in Massachusetts: “…The problem with the Sympathy/Poverty frame is that it reinforces the idea that poverty is the result of bad individual choice rather than a condition that requires systemic reform. This message also recreates the sense that people will think nothing can be done that doesn’t make matters worse….The Ford Foundation recommends that advocates frame their messages in terms of responsible planning and economic vision, with a strong secondary or reinforcing message about community planning….” (page 3)
  • For An Economy That Works: There are a lot of resources and studies here on language. Their goal is creating effective frames of reference for poverty issues to effect policy, which may or may not be applicable to grantwriting or appeals.