Politics of Poverty

“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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