Why I’m giving up the term “poor people” in 2014

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I recently wrote about resisting the temptation to categorize, classify, and label people living in poverty. As a person of privilege, it’s easy to steep myself in cold hard data. Perhaps I find greater comfort with facts and figures standing between myself and the undesirable realities of living below the poverty. Then there’s the dispassionate, overgeneralizing term used to lump those affected by poverty into a broadly-defined group called “poor people.”

Say the words out loud. Poor people. The phrase instantly creates a distinct sense of separation between privilege and poverty. I cringe at how closely it resembles the more pejorative “those people.” Worst of all, it brings to mind inaccurate stigmas that prevent ownership of the issues and encourage judgment. That’s right; to strengthen the fight for a livable wage and more sustainable communities, it’s necessary to drop preconceived ideas and take ownership for both the causes and outcomes of poverty regardless of zip code, race, ethnicity or class.

Other terms have previously been suggested such as underserved or impoverished. Neither, however, satisfy the requirement of ownership over this problem. I suggest using the poverty line itself as a way to discuss issues of poverty.

For example, instead of saying poor people, we might say “Our neighbors earning less than $213 per week.” In contrast to poor people, this description does several things differently. First, it meets the requirement of ownership over the problem of poverty by acknowledging the people with whom we share our community. Second, it begins to use data to address poverty at the daily, human level. Try and imagine yourself earning less than $30 a day. Tough, isn’t it? Third, it gives credit where it’s due. Many of the thousands of individuals facing poverty in our community still work, which means they earn a wage — though not a livable wage. It begins to erode the misconception that people in poverty somehow want to be in poverty. Also, people with low earnings still possess valuable knowledge and experience we all can learn from. Making less money doesn’t make someone less important. Lastly, our neighbors who earn less than $30 per day still contribute to our community. They work, raise families, attend church, and these are all activities that add — not detract — from the overall richness of the Rochester region.

Poverty affects all people. If I accept this harsh reality, it’s easy to understand why “poor people” is an undeserved term for any member of our community.

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