build better conversations

Tackling poverty stigma to build better conversations

This can be a fraught time of year. While the holidays can be a time of great joy and togetherness, they have also become rife with consumerism. At some point, it feels like the whole world is on a shopping spree.

That’s why we’re taking this opportunity to build better conversations about people with lower incomes, people experiencing poverty, and money. Let’s reevaluate what words we use and the impact they can have. But first, let’s address myths and misconceptions that can trip us up along the way.

myths worth busting

The idea that people living in poverty are frivolous or wasteful with money is a harmful stereotype. The reality is, people with low incomes are often incredibly resourceful with money. (Here’s one source, which unfortunately doesn’t abide by our recommendations below). Generally speaking, people living on low incomes are highly attuned to how much money they have, how much things cost, and what things are worth, sometimes more so than people with high incomes.

Oversimplifying poverty leads to another set of myths. These myths reflect assumptions about how, when and why people experience poverty. Here are a few falsehoods:

  1. Poverty is a fixed, permanent state. Some people experience poverty their entire lives, but not everyone does. This is why saying someone “is poor” can be too simplistic – among other reasons we’ll explain below.
  2. People “fall into poverty” and can “climb out of it.” This ignores how our society is set up to help some people inherit privilege and resources generation after generation. It assumes everyone is born with everything they need and that some error or misstep causes someone to fall into lower socioeconomic conditions. Many people are born into poverty, but other intersecting forms of oppression – like racism, sexism and ableism – can keep people there, regardless of their skills and efforts.

Once we shake off these problematic notions, we can see – and write about – poverty, differently.

diverse people stand on a bus

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

dos and don’ts

For best practices on talking about poverty, we love the direction from the Conscious Style Guide. We credit Heather Bryant and Denise-Marie Ordway, renowned journalists and leading thinkers in this space, for their tip sheet, from which we’ve drawn quite a few recommendations below. We’ve added a few of our own, too.

  1. Do take a people-first approach. Do not say a “poor person” or, relatedly, a “homeless person.” Write and speak about people experiencing poverty. A person is not their circumstance or their bank account balance. They are a person, first.
  2. Do not simplify who lives in poverty and why. It’s true that more single people (including single parents) live in poverty than those who are coupled. This is because they have one income instead of two (or more). In Canada, more people of colour live in poverty because our economic systems favour white privilege. Do not describe another part of someone’s life or identity as the sole cause of poverty.
  3. Do emphasize people’s strengths and sources of joy. Living in poverty can take a toll on your well-being. By no means should we downplay the impacts of poverty. At the same time, not everyone living on a low income is living in despair. People experiencing poverty are just as capable – and worthy – of joy as is anyone else. Highlight what people are good at and what they love in balance with any description of the more challenging parts of their lives.
  4. Do not criminalize poverty. People living in poverty do the best they can to get by, day-to-day. People are not violent or likely to commit a crime simply because they are experiencing poverty. Avoid language that implies people are “living on the edge.” This paints a picture of dangerous desperation that isn’t accurate at all for most folks.
  5. Do speak about social supports (accurately). There is a patchwork of social support available to those experiencing poverty. If and when possible, include information about resources people might not know are available. At the same time, do not exaggerate the social safety net. Welfare and disability rates do not provide a basic liveable income for most people. Social services can never solve systemic poverty – only alleviate its symptoms.
  6. Do not equate poverty to a curse. Do not say “poverty-stricken” or “poverty-ridden”. Poverty is not an infectious disease or an affliction. Poverty does not define people’s identity or ways of being in the world.
  7. Do include all income levels in your audience base. Making broad statements about what “everyone” thinks or does when it comes to money or economic trends can alienate people on low incomes. Think carefully about how you approach your content and the messages you’re sending when you assume a universal middle-class experience with money.
  8. Do not associate poverty with poor lifestyle choices. We all make choices every day, some healthy and others not as much. People experiencing poverty are often subjected to heightened scrutiny over lifestyle choices. It just isn’t fair when we all have vices – and only some of us are criticized for it.

closing thoughts

As Lori Kleinsmith wrote (referenced here), “The pathways into and out of poverty are much more complex than a snapshot… [M]any readers are unable to see beyond the surface and to be empathetic to a person’s circumstances, choosing instead to speculate or criticize.”

When we build better conversations, we inevitably force ourselves out of the snapshots of everyday life. We call upon ourselves and others to go a bit deeper than what’s on the surface and to lead with empathy. We hope that in doing so, speculation and criticism subside in favour of compassion, understanding and solution-oriented thinking. We hope that different language can spur change.

Call us in. What did we miss? What doesn’t sound right? Let us know how you’ve learned to talk about poverty and why it matters. We’d love to hear from you.

Caucasian woman sitting with legs crossed smiling at the camera
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Natalie has over a decade of experience in strategic communication. She is passionate about powerful stories that inspire positive action.

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