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How to write and talk about poverty

We should all write and talk about poverty in a way that is both effective and respectful. The challenge is to recognise that language matters and to avoid the pitfalls of creating a feeling of "them and us", portraying an undeserving poor or feeding inadvertently into any stigma surrounding poverty. There are 3 goals for practitioners:

  • Effective description. This is the challenge of writing to deliver outcomes, e.g. securing funds or support for anti-poverty interventions and, evaluating and describing the poverty-reducing impact of activity.
  • Sensitive description. This is the challenge of describing poverty in a way that is respectful toward people experiencing poverty and aware of how these descriptions might be received by them.
  • Progressive description. This is the transformative challenge - using language to change any negative misperceptions.

Practitioners should commit to follow and promote such an approach to describing poverty. The following principles and guidance on word choice may be a helpful starting point.

Adopting progressive principles for writing poverty

The following broad principles should be adhered to in writing and describing poverty:

  • Avoid over-generalisation
  • Avoid negative language that is disrespectful, even if this language has currency.
  • View language as a tool in its own right for tackling the misperceptions surrounding poverty
  • Seek to communicate in a manner that is at once effective, sensitive and progressive.

Use whenever possible - Respectful and progressive language

Some language emphasises that the problem is the condition of poverty (rather than the problem being the people who experience poverty). For example:

  • People experiencing poverty
  • Areas with deprivation / areas with poverty
  • Low income living / living life on a low income

Use cautiously - Problematic (but powerful) everyday language

Some language has the potential to make either a positive or a negative contribution to challenging poverty and must be used with care. Following the progressive principles outlined above may assist in avoiding inadvertent problems being created by using words such as:

  • Poor people
  • Impoverished
  • Poverty-stricken
  • Poor places / Deprived places
  • Council housing estates / Peripheral housing estates / Estates
  • Marginalised / Peripheral / Hidden
  • The downtrodden
  • Hard working families / hard working majority (as this implies that there are work-shy families)
  • Benefit cheats

Try and avoid- Unacceptable everyday language

Some language can cause a negative perception and should be avoided. This includes:

  • The poor / Undeserving poor / Deserving poor (as this implies an undeserving poor)
  • Work-shy
  • Underclass
  • Welfare dependency / handouts / benefit culture / Languishing on benefit
  • Sponger, scroungers
  • Sink estates

On this page you can access a paper on how to write and talk about poverty. You can also access links to a range of further reading.