Avoiding the Poverty Language Traps

How we talk about poverty matters. In this post, we take a look at how we define and talk about poverty. 

By Maureen Fernandez, Content Director | Oct 01, 2018
Avoiding Poverty Language Traps

Poverty is an important topic. Everyone should be aware of the impact of poverty on children, families and communities. Those of us who work with children growing up in poverty feel the most immediate need to understand this impact, but ultimately the impact of poverty affects all members of society and we should all work to understand it.

Before we dive into this blog series on poverty, I’d like to take a moment to get us all on the same page. I want to be clear on what we’re talking about when we say poverty – and what we’re not talking about.


How we define poverty

Poverty is really an economic term. We can quantify how much money a person or family makes, and then determine whether or not that meets our collective definition on poverty. In the education system, that is often determined by the federal standards for “free or reduced lunch”.

Of course, like everything else in life, it’s not black-and-white. Some families live below the poverty line but believe that their income is sufficient to meet their needs. They wouldn’t self-identify as living in poverty. Others may bring in more income but have financial burdens, such as having to support extended family members or high medical expenses. These families may be one small crisis away from financial ruin. These families may not meet poverty standards on paper but may feel as though they live in poverty.

When we talk about poverty, we may use statistics pulled from these economic benchmarks. But we’re really talking about families who have financial instability and either can’t meet their family’s needs, or are at high risk of not meeting needs. This might look like a family who has unstable income. Perhaps a parent works on a contract basis and isn’t sure what he’ll do when the job ends, or perhaps he works shifts at a restaurant and each week his pay varies depending on his schedule. This might be a family who can afford to put food on the table each night, but starts to run out towards the end of the month. This might be a family who has to choose between school supplies or uniforms.

The amount of money, while necessary to determine funding and understand national poverty levels, is less important than the impact of poverty. Children who grow up with very little money but who have enough to eat, have loving, committed family members, a supportive community and quality education will be protected against many of the harmful impacts of poverty. So it’s not only about a dollar amount.


What we’re saying about poverty

As we dive into this new series on poverty, we aim to be intentional about our language. We want to be sure that we remain very respectful of the many children and families living in poverty in this country. A few things we’re keeping in mind:

  • Poverty is not one’s fault, or one’s choice
  • Poverty does not diminish or change a person’s inherent skills, talents or value to society
  • People who live in poverty are often incredibly resourceful, gritty and resilient
  • Children who live in poverty are as capable as anyone else

We will be mindful of words that are often linked with poverty, such as:   

  • At-risk
  • Those kids
  • Broken homes

We will also pay careful attention to how we portray poverty. We do not want to over-simplify a complex issue or fall into stereotypes or broad generalizations. We will be careful not to use words, examples or images that fall into any of these traps:

  • Linking poverty and race
  • Linking poverty with single parents
  • Linking poverty with violence


What we’re not saying about poverty

When we talk about poverty, we’re talking about the impact that it can have on a child’s health, wellbeing, and academic outcomes. We’ll talk about what adults working with children in poverty can do to support them. But what we’re not saying is that we have to be the saviors of poor children. We’re not saying that children growing up in poverty have nothing if we don’t step in. Children in poverty often have parents who love and care about them just as much as any other group of children. They often have communities who support each other. They often have determination and resilience. And they all have unique skills, personality traits and talents that only they can provide to the world. When we talk about poverty, we’re not talking about children who have nothing if not for us.

We aim to do better than the narratives we see around us. We are talking about poverty because it is important for us to understand. We should all know what poverty can look and feel like and what impact it can have on children and communities. And as we illuminate this important topic, we will try our hardest to move the conversation forward without perpetuating stereotypes. We look forward to sharing this series with you and welcome your comments and feedback.