Poor: No Longer a Four-Letter Word

What does it mean to be poor in America? Just as importantly, who decides how poverty is defined?

Let's start with the dictionary. According to the professional word-wranglers at Merriam-Webster, poverty is "The state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions."

Even in the supposedly neutral arena of dictionaries, poverty is defined as a lack of not merely money but status -- a personal failing rather than a social problem. This is poverty as defined from the outside, looking in.

Poverty as an experience -- the father who holds down two $7.25-an-hour jobs and rarely sees the family he works so hard to feed; the baby boomers facing spending their old age in poverty -- is glaringly absent from public discourse about poverty.

Words, however, do hold tremendous power to shape public attitudes and perception, and perception, in turn, shapes policy. Until we challenge the negative, blame-laden language used to define poverty -- from the op-ed page to the campaign trail to the dictionary itself -- policymakers will have a license to dismantle programs that provide an economic toehold for poor families, and to abdicate any responsibility to create policies that help lift people out of poverty.

Redefining poverty away from blame and toward solutions demands that we shift our notion of poverty from something that happens to "others" -- an ill-defined, depersonalized mass whom we either blame for their situation or else ignore entirely -- toward a more inclusive, more realistic vision. It means recognizing that poverty is a situation rather than a character flaw -- a situation to which few Americans are immune.

Four in five American adults will face "joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives," according to the Associated Press. Yet, America so prides itself on being a country without poverty -- land of equality, home to the great middle class -- that "poor" has become the nation's most taboo four-letter word.

Individuals who dare to describe the challenges they face raising families in poverty are blamed for their own struggles: They are lazy, undeserving, morally as well as financially lacking.

Those who speak of poverty as a social problem are accused of inciting "class warfare." In the political arena, terms such as "low-income," "income inequality," "low-wage workers" and even "working class" are used to gloss over the painful reality that one in three Americans will experience profound poverty -- the inability to meet their families' basic needs -- at some point in a three-year period.

In a NewYorker.com blog post entitled "The 'P' Word," Jeff Shesol wrote "in the half century since [Pres. Lyndon] Johnson pledged 'not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,' presidents of both parties have shown a rare, bipartisan resolve to avoid the subject." In a search of 50 presidential State of the Union or similar key speeches, Shesol found "very few mentions of 'poverty' or the 'poor' after Johnson left office."

In the decades that followed Johnson's famous declaration of "war on poverty," journalist Sasha Abramsky observes, "We have witnessed a great unraveling of large parts of the social safety net and an extraordinary willingness to believe the worst about the poor. ... Linguistically, from 1964 to today, the dominant discourse has shifted from seeing poverty as the problem to framing poor people and their perceived dysfunctions as the primary challenge. It makes it far harder today to push for the kind of big-picture anti-poverty strategy that was born in 1964."

Abramsky describes Sargent Shriver, Johnson's right-hand man in the war on poverty, telling an audience what a journalist had said to him on the subject. "[B]efore you can do anything about poverty, you'll have to fumigate the closet in which Americans keep their ideas about the poor. You'll have to rid America of all its clichés about the poor, clichés like the one which says that only the lazy and worthless are poor, or that the poor are always with us."

At a recent gathering of family leaders at Marguerite Casey Foundation, that fumigation began.

"There are over 46 million people living in poverty," Kentucky anti-poverty activist Dana Beasley Brown told those assembled at the gathering. "If they become an organized base, unified under a vision, anything is possible."

Americans like Beasley Brown are flinging open the closet door on poverty, defining their lives in and on their own terms. As they speak out, offering their own eye-opening definitions of poverty, they paint a picture of complexity, of courage in the face of tremendous disadvantage, and of resistance in the face of pressure to remain silent and unseen.

Holly Baker of the Farmworker Association of Florida defines poverty this way: "Poverty is not only struggling to have the means to support the basic needs of your family, poverty is living each day feeling and knowing that you are unjustly judged by others and that you don't have an equal voice."

Redefining poverty is the key to changing attitudes, policies and the perception that 46 million Americans are undeserving because they lack resources or possessions.

I invite you to add your voice to the conversation. How do you #DefinePoverty?