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Language Arts: Poor

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . " - Emma Lazarus

For as far back as our forefathers' time, we have called people who belonged to a lower economic class poor.

Poverty - or the state of being poor - has been used in reference to everything from a person's financial status (or lack thereof) to their unfortunate lot in life, e.g., "That poor SOB has a nasty wife at home who is what makes him so miserable."

Yet, while poverty comes across as respectful, the term poor conveys a most negative connotation.

And though times have changed and politically correct terms pertaining to everything from race to religion have been placed under a microscope, one may muse that terms used in reference to society's bottom rung have neither been questioned nor adjusted for contemporary times in any conceivable way.

When upper middle-class people speak of donating money or volunteering at shelters, they typically refer to the class of people they are helping as the poor, whereas when debates take place at the legislative level, e.g., provisions for health care, tax credits, etc., this same class of people tends to use the word "poverty" along with a variety of other socio-sensitive terms, e.g., "the working poor," "the economically challenged," "the underserved."

The distinction between the use of poor and poverty (or impovershed) or those terms with more of a sociological bent is that the former evokes an emotional pull for a needy group of people whereas the latter terms relay either a more of a hopeful sense of personal effort despite individuals' unfortunate circumstances.

Notice the use of the word poor from the following New York Times article entitled "The New Poor: "Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs" from last month:

"Call them the new poor: people long accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life who are now relying on public assistance for the first time in their lives - potentially for years to come."

Using the term poor instead of "class-altered" or "cash-strapped" serves the Times's purpose of creating a sense of pity (not empathy, but pity) for those they have recently coined the newly minted poor.

While the inclusion of the word "new" may lessen the sting a bit, the fact remains that brandishing one with the label of poor invokes the same associations it has for centuries - that of the charity case, welfare and living in the slums.

And because the number of Americans at or below the poverty level stands at 38 million, there are quite a few million people being saddled with this derogatory moniker.

Measuring Stick
For a long time, the term poor has been a useful socioeconomic measuring tool. After determining the scores of people who met the qualifications of being placed (lumped) in the poor category, statisticians, politicians and clinicians (for that matter all "icians") were better equipped to design pie charts and multi-colored graphs depicting the numbers and, thus, providing an overall picture of the financial depths in which Americans were trapped.

Ironically, while our trusted leaders have been quite successful at identifying the numbers of people who fall into this category, they have been woefully unsuccessful at finding ways to help improve their situations in any long-lasting manner.

An array of organizations in the U.S. credited with doing good honest work to research the magnitude of the nation's strife problem have opted to include the word poverty in their titles, .e.g., the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and the National Anti-Poverty Organization.

The word choice seems acceptable, for these are both organizations that address legal issues and policies affecting lower-class citizens, whereas organizations' invocation of term poor, e.g., Food for the Poor/Shelter for the Poor, seem to vie for audiences' support of those in dire straits (in other words, intent on asking for charitable donations.)

In short, poverty comes across as a more sociological concept, whereas poor does not beat around the bush but rather seems content to come from a cold insensitive place whereby the individual in question is nothing but poor, not good or smart or interesting. Just plain old poor.

For many, the term poor conjures up images of persons living in squalor, filthy dirty environs, infrequent practice of hygiene habits, unintelligent, and, generally speaking, unable to take care of themselves in a way that extends far beyond financial matters.

While in some instances some or all of these characteristics may be true, it is certainly not a blanket statement that applies to all persons who just may happen to be a bit light in the wallet.

The perpetual use of the term poor seems to serve the purpose of removing traces of humanity/dignity from people who are considered to be blights in our modern day world.

According to the Bad Words Blog, which also shares the belief that the term poor has a ring of failure, the definition of a poor person is one who has very low income - lacks money to meet basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.

Going a bit further, from research they conducted at an earlier date, Bad Words concluded that rather than being about social issues, people associate being poor with moral issues. Meaning people believe people become poor because they made poor decisions rather than being the result of systemic failures, e.g., a bad economy, a devastating medical emergency, or even a bad "moneyless" marriage.

And while semantics to some, many of those grouped within the poor category find it highly offensive to be regaled in such a negative/helpless-victim manner.

Further compounding the frustration already felt, people "down on their luck" are then saddled with the burden of feeling shame about their situation due to the fact others see them as poor in a pitiful, seeking handouts type of way.

Thus, the never-ending revolving door problems enter into the equation whereby once people feel they are innately no good, they have a harder time overcoming that negative perception and, thus, an increasingly more difficult time breaking the cycle to move beyond their downtrodden environs.

Solving Poorness
To help alleviate some of the flack associated with the term poor, legislators and others in positions of authority may want to consider some of the other options available.

Is underserved a better term? It makes one have compassion for those people who have been forgotten and/or neglected.

What about lower economic status or economically challenged? Both have a nice financial sound suggesting something which perhaps an accountant could help remedy.

Additional suggestions include:

* Economically displaced. This term conjures up images of halting the construction on structural properties midway through their development - something which sounds industrious and stalemated at the same time.

* Working class (sometimes poor is attached, as in the working class poor or working poor). This gives the people in question an air of productivity despite the fact their earnings do not bring in a satisfactory cash flow.

* And last but not least (as some would tend to believe), indigent. This suggests the idea of a homeless person or a clinical term used by hospital/health care facilities when referring to someone unable/unwilling to pay for services rendered.

More entertaining alternatives: beggared, destitute, dirt poor, down-and-out, empty-handed, flat broke, fortuneless, hard-up, impecunious, impoverished, in need, in want, insolvent, necessitous, pauperized, penniless, penurious, pinched, strapped, suffering, truly needy, underprivileged, and/or unprosperous.

Regardless of the word selected as a suitable substitute for poor, the fact remains that the condition of living without sufficient resources to meet one's basic needs of food, shelter, and a smartphone is one that should be considered with a dose of humanity and maybe a bit of lexicon ingenuity.


Previously in Language Arts:
* Pushback.

* Locavore.

* Going Rogue.

* Rebalancing.


Comments welcome.


Posted on March 12, 2010

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