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Poverty has a language

by Keetie Roelen

A few weeks ago, I asked for your help to identify terms that we use to describe poverty, people in poverty and those receiving social assistance. You responded en masse! Via Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, I received many thoughts and reflections from all over the world. Thank you to everyone who has contributed!

Here is what I learned (so far):

First, the language around poverty and those who experience it is rich, nuanced, and multi-layered. Various terms reappear across contexts and languages, such as variations on the word ‘poverty’ as well as terms such as having limited resources, being disadvantaged or being vulnerable. Examples from Brunei and Zimbabwe (borrowed from research by Blessing Gweshengwe) also point to the many nuanced meanings of words that are used to describe poverty. A rich vocabulary points to distinct levels of severity, different types of hardship and degree of value-laden meaning.

“…there is no shortage of words that pass judgement on those living in poverty, in need of support or living on social assistance”

Second, there are many uses for the language of poverty. Certain terminology may be chosen to avoid stigma and uphold dignity, such as ‘mais desfavorecidos’ (most disadvantaged) as opposed to ‘pobres’ (poor people). In other cases, words are carefully chosen in order to deny or downplay the existence of poverty, such as in Uzbekistan and British Virgin Islands. Frequently, language is deliberately chosen to stigmatise people in poverty and receiving social assistance.

This leads to the third point: the range of pejorative terminology is perhaps unsurprising but no less startling. Across high, middle, and low-income countries, there is no shortage of words that pass judgement on those living in poverty, in need of support or living on social assistance. These often include judgement of character, suggestive of the notion that poverty is an individual failure. Examples from Germany and Paraguay relate poverty with being socially weak, lazy or a ‘lost cause’.

“…no words are value-neutral in and of itself. Instead, it depends on who uses them, in what context and for what purpose

Finally, there is no such thing as neutral language. When asked about whether words were value-laden, many responses suggested that they are technical terms that were used in a neutral manner. But, as pointed out by Santi Kusumaningrum and others, no words are value-neutral in and of itself. Instead, it depends on who uses them, in what context and for what purpose. As Santi notes: “I think we need to admit that as researchers or policy thinkers, we might not assign any degrading meaning to the words “poor” and “vulnerable.” But once we use that in a conversation with bureaucrats, politicians, etc, what we thought as neutral might not be the case anymore.”

Below is the full overview of words and terms, and notes about them. I consider this a living document – please do respond here or on social media if you have additions or other reflections! Getting a fuller insight into the language of poverty will be vital to choosing our words more carefully.

Note: This overview is based on crowdsourcing. This has its inherent flaws, and the information should be considered with that in mind. I have not attributed individual contributions, except when they originate from published research. Language is specified if it was highlighted by those who made the contribution.

 poverty   people in poverty  people receiving income support  
 original termEnglish translationremarksoriginal termEnglish translationremarksoriginal termEnglish translationremarks
Rwanda   umutindi nyakujyapoor personused in more judgemental way   
Zimbabwe (Shona)*kuchoboka, kusauka, kuomerwa, kukamambwafinancial poverty       
 kukwangaya, uromboboth financial poverty and the lack of basic necessities       
 kutambura, kushupika, kunhonga masvosve/sunzi nemukanwa, pfumvusevere poverty       
 nhamopoverty/ hard lifeterm can make one feel inferior      
 rombebeing unemployed and materially deprivedterm can make one feel inferior      
 kudya nhoko dzezvirondaextreme poverty term can make one feel inferior      
Bangladeshdaridripoor had daridro poriwarfamily living in ultra-poverty    
Brunei (Malay)*miskinnon-severe povertysensitive to use within the Bruneian community      
 fakirsevere povertysensitive to use within the Bruneian community      
 tidak or kurang mampu/kurang kemampuanliving in need/cannot afford basic needspreferable term      
 kesusahan dalam kehidup/hidup susah hardships/difficulties or difficult lifepreferable term      
 orang or keluarga susahpeople with difficulties or hardshipspreferable term      
Indiagareebpoor gareeb logpoor people    
Indonesia   penyandang masalah kesejahteraan sosialpeople with social welfare problems pemerlu layanan kesejahteraan sosialpeople who need social welfare serviceshidden groups who need social services (who are spoken about less because policy focuses more on cash rather than other  assistance), they could be more stigmatized
    rentan miskinvulnerable peopleterms used in a neutral way to categorize people’s economic/welfare status, not to label them   
    miskinpoor people    
Japan   浮浪者 /furōsha/‘a tramp’, ‘vagrant’, ‘wandering person’they are a silenced minority   
    ホームレス /hōmuresuhomeless person    
    野宿者/nojukushaa person sleeping outsidepolitically correct term   
Mongolia   арчаагүйlazy, someone who doesn’t take care of themselvespoverty is seen as an individual failure.   
Nepalgaribipoverty Garibiko rekha muni raheka janatapeople under the poverty line    
Pakistan (Urdu)Ghurbaatpoverty Faqeer (male) faqeerun or faqeerni (female)someone with no belongingstraditionally it denotes a Sufi/mystic, but used as a term for the poor   
 Ghurbaat Mitaoupoverty alleviation Muft-khorfree-loader    
    Kaam-chorsomeone who shirks from work    
    Hudd-haramlazy bones, or someone who couldn’t be bothered to move their bones    
Philippines      benepisyaryo beneficiary 
       pálamunínsomeone who depends on others to livederogatory term that is openly used
Uzbekistan   kam ta’minlanganlow-income peopleto avoid admitting to povertyijtimoiy himoyaga muhtojin need of social assistanceneutral term
    kambag’alpoor peopleharsher term for poverty, not necessarily derogatory   
British Virgin Islands   vulnerable people poverty is not an acceptable term due to relatively high GDP   
Germany   sozial schwachsocially weakderogatory termHartzersomeone receiving social assistance under Hartz VI implying they are taking advantage of the support system
Kosovo (Albanian)   familje skamnoredestitute/penurious families.most common term in (esp. written) media for families in extreme povertyraste socialesocial casessocial assistance recipients 
       k’ta te sociallitthose from the “social”more derogatory in nature, referring to social assistance beneficiaries
Hungary      mélyszegénységben élőkthose who live in deep povertytarget population for social assistance
Netherlandsarmoedepoverty arme mensenpoor people uitkeringstrekkerliving off benefitsmostly used in derogatory way
Portugal   pobrespoor people famílias carenciadasneedy households 
    mais desfavorecidosmost disadvantaged/underprivilegedterm to avoid ‘pobres’grupos/pessoas vulneráveisvulnerable groups/ people 
Latin America         
Argentina      planerospeople living off social plans 
Colombia   pobrespeople in poverty beneficiarios de programaspeople receiving benefits 
       personas que viven de asistencialismopeople that have been receiving benefits for some/long timemore judgemental term
Panama   personas de bajos recursospersons with few resources    
    personas con escasos recursospeople with limited resources    
Paraguay      haraganes lazyterm to describe people in poverty or receiving support
       falta de aspiración lack of aspirationterm to describe people in poverty or receiving support
       están así porque quieren  they’re in that situation because they want to beterm to describe people in poverty or receiving support
       no tienen solución/no tienen remedio they’re a lost causeterm to describe people in poverty or receiving support
       les di oportunidades y no la aprovecharon I gave someone an opportunity once and he didn’t take advantageterm to describe people in poverty or receiving support
       apáticosapathetic term to describe people in poverty or receiving support
       ignorantesignorantterm to describe people in poverty or receiving support
Venezuela   Personas con limitaciones económicaspeople with limited economic resources    


2 comments on “Poverty has a language

  1. Pingback: What does poverty mean in Brunei Darussalam? – Blessing Gweshengwe

  2. Pingback: Why is 17 October such a momentous day for poverty eradication? – Blessing Gweshengwe PhD

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