Poverty, Politics, and Pointed Language

[Inquiring post, from a professional support discussion thread]
Struggling with writer’s block and thought maybe someone would have some ideas for me! In writing up something about my organization’s work, we’re struggling with using the term “poverty-ridden” to describe a neighborhood we work with. The community is underserved for sure, and some pockets do struggle with poverty, but the “poverty-ridden” doesn’t sit right as a way to describe it. Another colleague feels that “underserved community” feels a little “lefty-speak”.

Curious if anyone has any magical language they might share? Thanks for your thoughts!


[responder #1]
How about
Opportunity Area
About to thrive
Culturally rich but financially under resourced
[Responder #2]
Great question! I don’t have any magic answers, but your question reminded me of this blog post I read a while ago. I think both the blog post and the comments are very thought provoking and along the lines of what you and your team are struggling with. Many good points and no clear answer – poverty is indeed ugly and wrenching and something we shouldn’t feel comfortable and happy trying to describe.https://politicsofpoverty.oxfamamerica.org/2015/01/poor-versus-low-income-what-term-should-we-use/

Hi [inquiring+responding folks],I think it depends on the context and history of that community and how you present the context in your writing, as much as it does on what you intend to convey. To me, the truth with proper context is always good.

For major cities operating under the legacy of institutionalized racism–redlining, historically discriminatory zoning, etc. (almost every major city in the U.S.), a term like “economically oppressed” might be apt if you’re able to explain how the community got to where it is today.

Terms like “Opportunity Area” and “Culturally rich but financially under resourced” often signal exploitation and transactional work rather than ongoing co-creative/long-term development, and some communities are very wary about it at least where I tend to work.Low-income/under/unemployed might work for a population.
“Poor” can sometimes touch a nerve too because it imbues assumptions about people whose reality doesn’t match with the label. Be sure to discern between impoverished (zero social/economic capital) and what people might label as poor (people who make ends meet through relationships, alternative economics, etc.).

Working in Detroit, I’ve used “underinvested”–with context that neighborhoods are already doing innovative and important work out of necessity, but are being outright ignored while media and financial attention continues to stay in the downtown/business corridors.

A friend and I used “priority engagement youth” which could apply to communities, etc. too rather than impoverished or at risk. This maintains the agency of the people in focus, without casting them under a lens of victim status and gets delivered through an active but politically neutral phrase.

In other contexts, if I’m articulating a case for broader systemic intervention to specific private funders, “economically oppressed” can make sense given the history and ongoing momentum of the city’s development patterns. Of course, anything about oppression is likely to stray into the “left”, but again I think what matters is who you’re communicating to, what your intentions are, and the context of the place/people that you can bring to light.

For the present, there’s “economically afflicted”, perhaps to articulate a current problem or challenge.

Building on [responder #2]’s comment and links, I think of a quote from the introduction in Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

During our discussion, [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s friend remarked, “Donaldo, you are right. We are using euphemisms such as Economically marginal’ and avoid more pointed terms like ‘oppression'”


Of course that might carry leftist implications by bringing out the term oppression, but again it can depend on context. If the necessary changes are genuine and you can communicate it well, it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum the language comes from, people should come to conclude the right thing to do.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Friere

A “Poor vs. Low-Income etc.” blog post via oxfam:

Essentially asks: why not describe a situation for what it is using the word “poor’? The bias that’s not noted by the writer is the label for poverty/poor (at least in the English language) rests in the language–it implies that the people have zero resources/ability and completely need help as victims.This ties into what many justice advocates call “savior complex” and valid critiques about how charity gets things wrong–it assumes a power dynamic where one will receive help, the other issues/awards “help” even if the people at attention are already working and capable but really just need supplemental support to what they’re already doing.

it sets the reader and workers up with a way of thinking that the people they work with are completely powerless and reliant on support from a privileged agency/non-profit that can rescue them.

I mention transaction/relational economic development here recently:

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