"Poor" Is a Four-Letter Word
"At-risk," "underserved," "vulnerable," "low-income" — all these and more are seemingly used to avoid the word "poor."
A client recently asked which of this ilk I prefer, and I admit I was flummoxed. I did some research and still couldn't find a euphemism for "poor" I was comfortable with. I wondered, "Why can't we just say 'poor?'"
"You have to be very careful when you use the word Ö 'poor' around liberals," cautions blogger Morgan K. Freeberg in an entry titled "The Economy." "Liberals often like to use the term 'working families' to describe these people. But that breaks more linguistic things than it fixes, for very often 'working families' do not consist of families at all, and much of the time nobody in these 'families' is even working."
Though Freeberg is concerned with "linguistic things," which makes him unique, his attitude is typical of a large segment of the language-wielding public.
He also says: "Poor people have it tough. Their beloved social programs are running out of cash, the class sizes in the public schools are swelling, the buses are stopping every 20 minutes instead of every 10 Ö Of course, some of these 'poor' people have bigger teevee sets than some of the not-poor people and have generally more comfortable lifestyles, in some cases, even higher incomes!"
Something about Freeberg's tone leads me to believe that the poor push his buttons.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogosphere, Benjamin J. Kirby opines, in his piece "At-Risk: The American Story of the Poor (And Why It's a Marketing Loser)," "We've entirely forgotten about the poor — so much so, we don't even call them that anymore."
He goes on to reveal: "I will be the first to concede that I have fallen into this trap myself. At JWB [the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, Florida], we're supposed to be working for poor children and families Ö Read our website. I know the word "poor" is on there in a place or two, but not a lot.
Our response to the poor is compli-
cated, so the word "poor" carries a lot of baggage. It doesn't just mean "not rich"; it also means "not good."
"This isn't entirely without forethought, I'm sorry to tell you. Poor people, aside from being poor, suffer Ö in the political world. First, they are unpopular with our friends and neighbors on the right side of the political spectrum. Republicans don't like failure and nothing suggests the failure of that shining city on a hill more than the circumstances of a poor person. It was President Reagan, in fact, who made it cool to openly loathe the poor, introducing America to the insidious lie of the 'welfare queen.'"
If Americans don't actually loathe the poor, I'm thinking many of us don't particularly like them (to the extent that we even know any poor people).
Says Nancy Simon of Chicago's Beachwood Reporter: "For many, the term 'poor' conjures up images of persons living in squalor Ö The perpetual use of the term 'poor' seems to serve the purpose of removing traces of humanity/dignity from people who are considered to be blights in our modern day world Ö
"Rather than being about social issues, people associate being poor with moral issues. Meaning people believe people become poor because they made poor decisions rather than being the result of systemic failures."
Our response to the poor is complicated, so the word "poor" carries a lot of baggage. It doesn't just mean "not rich"; it also means "not good." Thus the emergence of "underserved," which is how my client chose to describe the beneficiaries of her after-school program.
At first I thought it was a bad choice. But when I subbed "poor" into her group's mission statement in place of "underserved" — "Providing poor youth with arts instruction" — I uncovered what I think is the biggest shortcoming of the word "poor": It's imprecise.
The kids in my client's program aren't necessarily poor — they just go to Los Angeles public schools. The issue is not primarily the income of their families but the failure of their schools to provide them with art, band, choir, drama and all the other stuff I grew up taking for granted.
Don't get me wrong — in absolute terms, "underserved" is a ridiculous bit of social-service jargon. But in the larger context of schools no longer serving children, it works.
What this comes down to for a writer is taking the extra five minutes to think about what's being conveyed and be as precise as possible in conveying it.
If a teenager is "at risk," what, exactly, is she at risk OF? Can you say, "at risk of unwanted pregnancy?" If a kid is vulnerable, what is he vulnerable TO? Can you say "vulnerable to gang influences?" If someone is "low income," how low IS that income? Does she fall below the federal poverty line? If so, let's say so.
(By the way, in the contiguous 48 states, for a family of four, that's $22,350 annually. Sounds like a pittance to me, but I guess it's enough to buy a big teevee set.)
After giving it some thought, I understand why we don't just say "poor." Navigating your way around "poor" also takes some thought, which is ultimately the point.
Now, about the word "youth" Ö