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Last updated: Jul 21st, 2015

Poor or Low-Income?

People in America in our time often use the term low-income when they mean poor. The usage of "low-income" to mean "poor" is a euphemism and is inaccurate; people often avoid the term "poor" out of political correctness, but I think that this confusion leads to a lack of precision when discussing poverty.

I also think that this focus on income, and not wealth, net worth, and support network (which are reflected in the word poor), is associated with an implicit marginalization of the practice and values of financial responsibility, and also, to a degree, with a lack of understanding of how poverty in America exists and occurs. Implicit in the idea that low income can be used to mean poor is the assumption that people generally do not save money, or that saving is not important. These assumptions, and the lack of distinctions between income and net worth, ultimately hold us back from addressing the social problems associated with poverty, and preventing or combating poverty.

Examples demonstrating the distinction of low-income vs poor

Some of these examples are more common than others, but in the recent economic downturn, there are more examples of people who are low-income but not poor, as well as more people who are poor but not low income (especially considering the rising cost of education, coupled with bankruptcy reforms making it harder to eliminate debt).

Poverty and Support Network:

The examples above touch on a very important aspect of poverty, which is the social network or support context. Even if a person has little income and little financial or material wealth of their own, it does not make sense for that person to be considered "poor" if they are being provided for by a family or social network of considerable financial means. True poverty exists when people truly cannot provide for themselves and do not have a support network to rely on, or when their family or support network consists of people who are for the most part poor. These social network aspects of poverty are also not adequately reflected by the use of the term "low-income"; the recent unemployed college grad living at home with well-to-do parents is the biggest example of someone who is low-income and low-net-worth but not living in poverty.

Use the terms "poor" and "low income" deliberately:

When you mean poor, say poor. When you mean low income, say low-income. You will find that, by and large, low-income is not a very important concept, whereas poor is.

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