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Families & Community

Poor vs. low-income: Does it matter which word we use?

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Who is poor? Who is low-income? It’s a question our team and others who report on issues of poverty grapple with a lot.  

My news editor and I did a quick search of the newsroom's story database from the past two months, and it turns out Michigan Radio reporters and hosts used the term poor on air twice as often as low-income. So I wanted to know: does it matter which term we use to describe people?

I put the question to two experts in two very different fields. 

Let’s start with our numbers person, Susan Dynarski. She's a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. She's also an avid Twitter user and frequent contributor to the New York Times. Her most recent article began like this: 

Rich and poor students don’t merely enroll in college at different rates; they also complete it at different rates. The graduation gap is even wider than the enrollment gap.

So I wanted to know: How do you decide when to use the word poor and when to use the word low-income?

"It's often how quickly I need to speak!" jokes Dynarski. "I mean, literally, poor is sometimes used as a short-hand for 'in a tough situation.'"

Being an economist, she of course points to some data as well. Specifically the federal government’s poverty guidelines that precisely defines what the poverty level is, say, for a family of four. It's $24,250. "If you have less income than that you are poor," says Dynarski, "and if you have more income you are not."

"I have not run into people caring" which word I use, she adds. "Have you?"

Umm, yes. I’ve gotten more than a few emails from listeners who are upset when I use the word poor in a story to describe someone. Even if the person I’m talking about describes himself as not having enough money to live on, or a family I feature is eligible for free lunch or food stamps – two programs based on precise federal poverty measures. I often start with the word low-income, and then, like Dynarski, use poor as the shorthand. Still, the majority of time, the folks who write in say they wish I would’ve solely used the words "low-income".

"I think the connotations of the terms are really different," says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan. She studies the history of the English language, is trained as a linguist, and is our second expert -- our words person.

Curzan says there are actually three definitions for the word poor. It can mean:

  1. People who don’t have enough resources to meet their needs.
  2. Bad or shoddy quality
  3. Pitiable, as in 'oh you poor soul.'

"Even if you don’t mean to pull up those connotations," she explains, "when you say the word poor, the way our brains work, all those meanings get activated. And I think there are people who say that doesn’t feel good or fair."
She says the term low-income, on the other hand, allows us to separate out the issue of income from the people themselves. In other words: there's no judgment. 

Google has this really cool tool called the Ngram Viewer, which lets you search centuries' worth of books for specific words. Type in "poor" and "low-income" and here's what you get:

The Ngram Viewer only goes back to the 1500s. Curzan uses the Oxford English Dictionary and she says the word poor dates back as far as 1225. So there you go: poor has been around forever and low-income doesn't show up in any real significant way until the 1960s.

Which makes you wonder, is this just a PC thing? 

Curzan says she hears that question a lot, or some variation on the "aren't these just words?" theme.  But she firmly believes that words do matter. For proof, she points to a 2010 New York Times/CBS poll that asked viewers to answer the following two questions:

  • Do you favor or oppose homosexuals serving in the military?
  • Do you favor or oppose gay men and lesbians serving in the military?

The first question, with the word "homosexual," got a 59% approval rating, whereas the question with the words "gay men and lesbians" had a 70% approval rating. 
Curzan says that difference "is way above statistical significance" and shows that "it does matter what terms we use."

It matters to Christopher Reynolds. He's a first generation college student who we featured in a State of Opportunity story earlier this year. My colleague Sarah Alvarez talked to him again in April to get his take on the terms poor and low-income. 

Reynolds is a rising senior at the University of Michigan's School of Engineering. "I think poor is such a loaded word, and such a negative word as well," says Reynolds. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he says he used the word poor to describe himself and his family's situation, but says he would "never define myself as poor" today. 

The takeaway? Perhaps we shouldn’t either. 

But as U of M economist Susan Dynarski pointed out in our conversation, when you're up against a word count (as in a column) or a time constraint (as in radio), the term poor takes up fewer spaces and is quicker to say than low-income. It's also easier to tweet.

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