A fellow academic recently commented that the phrase “housing for the poor”, which was used in the title of an issue of Economic Affairs I edited in 2008, was, to quote, “terminology that went out with Dickens”. Presumably this was meant to show how terribly out of date I was, or perhaps that I was subscribing to a Victorian view of dealing with poverty. Despite the apparent ignorance it shows of Dickens, this comment set me thinking on the terms that are commonly used by academics to describe the poor.
Indeed it is now very rare that the word “poor” is actually used. Instead we hear things like “low-income households”, “socially excluded”, “vulnerable”, or, my favourite, “families with complex needs”. The idea seems to be that if we rename a problem we have somehow transformed it. Moreover, suggesting that the problem is “social” or “complex” and relates to “vulnerability” implies that poverty can only be addressed by those with special insight into the problem. It is an article of faith amongst social scientists that poverty is caused by structural inequalities which are beyond the scope of the individuals themselves to solve. Hence the problem of poverty needs to be labelled accordingly.
Perhaps then we need to reassert the use of the term “poor” to remind us that we are referring to individual people with specific problems that need to be tackled, rather than relying on euphemisms that point the blame at anonymous social forces that only experts can identify.