The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

“Poor” versus “low-income”: What term should we use?

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Polluted water in the Andong slum outside of Phnom Phen, Cambodia. Photograph: Emma Hardy / Oxfam.

Words educate, sanitize, provoke.

Shop versus store.
Loo versus toilet.
Holiday versus vacation.

There’s a lot of fun and charm in the language conflicts working across the Anglo-American divide. Most of the differences are trivial or silly, although some do denote deeper social and philosophical cleavages that are actually kind of important.

Oxfam is a global organization, but much of the brains of the operation reside in Oxford. So, there is a distinctly British cast to much of the communications.

One of the language differences we encounter is the constant use of “poor”—poor people, poor countries. “Poor” is all over Oxfam materials, from academic papers to internal strategy documents to public communications. Poor poor poor.

To my American ears, when I joined the organization, this sounded terrible. The use of the word sounds archaic, even medieval – rigidly classist and fatalistic. “The poor” often denotes a great, undifferentiated mass. Something about it conveys the idea that poverty is immovable, like an historical legacy that we must endure, but never overcome. And saying “poor countries” sounds patronizing.

In US-speak, you say “low income” people and you say, “developing countries.” Doesn’t that seem more polite and respectful? Being “low income” or “developing” sounds much more transitory, like a temporary inconvenience. Everything will get right back on track soon enough. People who are “low income” are just like you and me…they just have less income. That seems more humanizing, right?

So in my first weeks at Oxfam, I furiously edited anything that crossed my desk, striking “poor” and replacing with something more sanitized. But after a while, I started wondering, “What am I trying to hide? Why am I uncomfortable describing people and countries as ‘poor’?”

People who are poor are not just like me. They face totally different challenges and problems. They’re poor. Simple luxuries are out of reach. My morning latte costs twice what a poor person earns each day. Being poor is not an inconvenience or a transitory phase. Poverty is a crisis, a wrenching experience that quite literally means death for millions.

So why would I try to minimize it? Why use a euphemism? Poverty is terrible, and the point of working at Oxfam is to do something about it, to gather support for challenging the injustices that cause poverty. If the word “poor” sounds a bit screechy, so be it. We should be yelling about it – daily.

Poor. People are poor. More than 1.2 billion people are extremely poor. It’s awful.

Saying “poor” is a bit jarring. It may sound like the speaker is laying on a guilt-trip, but it can also sound like an invocation. Did Jesus say anything about “low income” people or “developing countries?” No, Jesus said, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…

So, I use “poor” even though I know it sounds rough. It’s supposed to do so. And I thank British English for it.

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  1. diana.skelton@atd-fourthworld.org'Diana Skelton

    Interesting article–but we should also consider the fact that the word “poor” can mean “of low quality.” No one wants to do poor work or to attend a poor school. The term “people in poverty” isn’t hiding anything, and is loud and clear about the injustice we must overcome. But saying “low-income community” (or under-resourced community) is a more accurate description than the term “poor community” which can be understood in different ways.

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  2. clare.eileen.callahan@gmail.com'Clare Callahan

    I agree with Gawain’s point about how a term like “low-income” obscures the nature of poverty. The other problem with “low-income” is that it implies that the poor are waged, which is not always the case. Of course income can refer to any form of income, not just wages, but that term has typically been evocative of income from employment. Michael Denning made a very important observation in an article he wrote several years ago, “Wageless Life.” He observed that to speak of wages and labor is to speak of those who are already enfranchised, even if their wages are low. Those without wages, with no-income, make up a greater and greater portion of the population. Denning argued that we have to “decenter wage labor in our conception of life under capitalism.” I wonder if the use of the term poor attempts to achieve that, as well.

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  3. moritzo2000@gmail.com'Maurice Omondi

    I think the use of the terminology poor people or People Living in Poverty tend to consign the people to eternal poverty. It is time we thought of using futuristic terminologies that also empower the people we work with. What if we used terms such as customers or partners. Or otherwise ensure that we we at least treated the people as such.

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  4. Pingback: Poverty, Politics, and Pointed Language | Ian D. Tran |

  5. tsanderson24@live.com'Tami Sanderson

    Why are we so afraid to use the word? I recently completed a program for young people to become engaged in their communities/country and an experience I had that I relayed in the document outlining the program I said that the particular group came from a poor community. The president of the nonprofit I work with literally told me to replace poor with low income as I had been politically incorrect and insensitive. Insensitive to who? The kids I worked with called themselves poor – I think people dress up language to prevent themselves from really looking the reality of some issues/situations in the face because if they really acknowledge it they must choose to do nothing or something.

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  6. windmills@extremadura.es'Sancho Panza

    Jesus also said “You will always have the poor among you…” (Mt 26:11). Poverty is, as you pointed out, a stark reality that we should acknowledge head-on. I hate the term “developing countries.” People from poor countries hear the phrase and are not fooled; they still know that what the speaker really means is that they’re poor. The euphemism makes it sound like being poor is so shameful that we can’t even utter the word. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of, and the euphemism is just another example of rich countries patronizing poor countries.

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  7. peacocktales4u@yahoo.com'Rebecca

    My grandmother always said, “We are not poor. We may not have much money but we are NOT poor.
    We are rich in all the ways that matter.

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  8. Newsletters4liz@gmail.com'Elizabeth

    Interesting perspective. I find that the use of the word “poor” tends to “other” people. They are hopeless, outside of your experience and your world. They are The Poor. I think part of the reason we resist using “poor” in the US is, as the first commented noted, because poor is perceived as being about who you are, rather than the situation you’re in. My mother grew up poor, but her family always looked at themselves as just not having any money. It was a psychologically important difference. I don’t think avoiding the word “poor” is about sparing the feelings of the speaker, it’s about humanizing those of whom they speak.

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