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Language Matters: Words to Avoid When Talking About Poverty in America

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Who do you picture when you imagine someone experiencing poverty today? A newly arrived immigrant? A Black single mother? A rural family? What about a white child? Most Americans living in poverty are white—18 million individuals.

These are the sorts of misperceptions we wanted to combat when the Ad Council and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a year-long effort to change the narratives around poverty and economic mobility within advertising and media.

As Colleen Shaddox and Joanne Goldblum write in their new book, Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending US Poverty, “If we want to address poverty—to understand it once and for call—we have to see it first.” For many upper-income Americans, who are unlikely to have neighbors or close colleagues who currently live in poverty, the experience of poverty may be largely invisible to them, which can feed into all sorts of internal biases they may have. So the Ad Council set out to ask: How might these misperceptions impact our media/marketing/advertising decisions, and how can our industry collectively combat these unconscious biases?

Through a series of online peer convenings customized for creative agencies, brands, technology and the media, we tackled these questions with a lineup of experts, journalists and practitioners. And we learned a lot along the way. Here are six key learnings we’d like to share.

1. Reframe poverty from a story about personal failure to one about structural inequities and lack of resources.

Many stories about poverty tend to blame people, not systems, by portraying low-income people as inherently flawed or as individuals who somehow just need to work harder. But in America poverty is close to inevitable for low-wage workers and their children—earnings have not kept pace with the cost of living, and many low-income people face systemic inequities and residential segregation which exacerbate the problem. Hard work alone is often not enough to lift someone out of poverty.

2. Be specific: keep the person at the center of your story, provide context and honor their dignity and uniqueness.

Every story about someone living in poverty is the story of a person—an individual with unique traits and circumstances. This should be kept in mind at every level, from the framing of the story to the language we use. “Person currently living in poverty” is preferable to “the poor”—this avoids defining the person by their current situation and treats them as an individual.

Similarly, “area suffering from poverty and disinvestment” is preferable to phrases like “inner-city neighborhood,” which can have racist connotations and taps into stereotypes.

3. Avoid stereotypes, clichés and easy generalizations.

Another reason to avoid phrases like “the poor” is that they do not give broader context for why someone is living in poverty. These phrases can be dehumanizing and demeaning.

4. Emphasize our common humanity.

Everyone is a member of a community. Everyone is a part of multiple communities. Good storytellers always find the universal through the specific—they find the details and moments that anyone can identify with. Broad generalizations like “the poor” don’t take into account the many nuanced factors (systems and policies) that could lead any one person to be currently living in poverty.

5. Think carefully about how you approach a story and the messages you’re sending to people with limited incomes.

This can take the form of emphasizing resilience, determination and entrepreneurial spirit—while also examining the systemic inequities that work against them—rather than perpetuating false narratives that portray a person living in poverty as a victim or someone who needs only to work harder to escape their predicament.

6. Avoid associating poverty with certain habits or lifestyle choices.

Showing personal habits like smoking, coffee or soda drinking, watching certain kinds of TV shows, or food choices like fast food may reinforce stereotypes without unpacking underlying systemic issues like food scarcity and affordability.

To learn more about how to change the narrative on poverty and economic mobility in America, check out this sharable guide.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash