Socioeconomic status

When and how to refer to socioeconomic status groups

Background:

Socioeconomic status is a complex concept that involves education, income and overall financial security, occupation, living conditions, resources, and opportunities afforded to people within society. Socioeconomic status and one’s perceived social standing are factors of social class. Generalizing and pejorative language about socioeconomic status and class contributes to stereotypes. Furthermore, mentioning socioeconomic status when it is not relevant could introduce bias.

While there are no universal definitions of “high” and “low,” the terms “high income” and “low income” are often used to describe where on a range an individual falls. But these terms may mask important distinctions when it comes to other aspects of poverty or wealth, and they may be misleading, as “wealthy people may qualify as low-income, or [the term ‘low income’] may not capture the effects of wealth on class,” the Style Guide from the N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change explains. The American Psychological Association (APA) uses the term “low-income and economic marginalization” in 2019 guidelines to establish common terminology that includes both limited financial resources and marginalization related to social class.

Some organizations, such as the APA, recommend avoiding the phrase “poor people,” in part because of negative connotations associated with the word “poor.” Others argue that alternatives to “poor” are sanitizing attempts to alleviate a communicator’s discomfort rather than the discomfort of people the words are meant to describe.

Recommendation:

Mention socioeconomic status only when relevant. Define specific income data and education levels when appropriate. Consider including contextual details about net worth or measuring income relative to the poverty line, a benchmark that may serve as a recognizable and quantifiable standard, though it has been critiqued as a flawed and outdated measure of poverty. Avoid labeling socioeconomic status groups by a characteristic, such as “the unemployed,” which can be derogatory, be dehumanizing, or imply that these groups are defined by the problems they experience. See also “Avoid labeling people by a characteristic.”

Examples:

Use:

“Aggregated ratios indicated that participants from the lowest SES [socioeconomic status] community experienced higher home exposures compared to participants of all other communities over consecutive 24-hr monitoring periods, despite high participant mobility and relatively low variability in ambient PM2.5 during the study'' (J. Aerosol Sci. 2021, DOI: 10.1016/j.jaerosci.2020.105704).

Avoid:

that the poor

Use:

“Households making $50,000 or less a year were far more likely to experience a pay cut than those making $100,000 or more a year” (Washington Post, Feb. 22, 2022).

Avoid:

Low-income households . . . high-income households (While using “low income” and “high income” as descriptors may be appropriate once they are defined, describing the categories is clearer on first use, as people may define these categories differently.)

Use:

"Nonetheless, schools and instructors should have a plan to make computer hardware available to students who may not be able to afford their own devices or whose devices are outdated or not functioning” (ACS Symposium Series 2019, vol. 1318, DOI: 10.1021/bk-2019-1318.ch016).

Avoid:

poor students (While using “poor” as an adjective may be appropriate in some situations, describing the situation is generally clearer than using a label.)

Use:

"We define the middle class as those in the middle 60% of the household income distribution—not poor, but not prosperous either. The average middle-class household has about $70,000 in income after taxes and transfers. To be middle class, a household of three would have an income between $40,000 and $154,000" (Brookings Institution, Sept. 2020).

Avoid deficit-based language for socioeconomic status

Background:

Deficit-based language focuses on what people lack. Describing people only with negative words like “struggling,” “underprivileged,” “at risk,” and “vulnerable” stigmatizes individuals and fails to recognize the larger systems that create problems. In contrast, asset-framing, a narrative strategy developed by Trabian Shorters, leads with people’s aspirations and contributions before mentioning problems; it also recognizes and names causal systems. Importantly, asset-framing does not aim to just use more positive words and downplay very real problems: “Asset-framing doesn’t ignore challenges. It’s not about avoidance or substitution. It’s more accurate to introduce a young person by their aspirations and contributions before mentioning their challenges than it is to sum them up as an ‘at-risk youth,’ ” Shorters writes in the Communication Network.

Recommendation:

Avoid dehumanizing language that leads with deficits. Use explicit language that looks at root causes and describes the barriers that impede those seeking opportunity. When comparing socioeconomic status groups, use parallel phrasing or asset-framing. When deficits need to be named, use neutral language instead of pejorative or stigmatizing words.

In addition, aim to accurately portray people of various socioeconomic status groups; avoid communication that ignores socioeconomic problems, romanticizes poverty, or portrays lower socioeconomic status groups as heroes. Do not equate poverty to a curse or disease, as with “poverty-stricken” or “poverty-ridden.” See also “Neutral language for disabilities, disorders, and diseases” and “Acknowledge systemic factors that affect socioeconomic status.”

Examples:

Use:

people with a high school diploma vs. people without a high school diploma or equivalent, or people with a [9, 10, or 11]th-grade education

Avoid:

high school graduates vs. high school dropouts

Use:

Consider donating to help students from lower socioeconomic groups participate in science research.

Avoid:

Consider donating to ensure these impoverished students receive the help they desperately need.

Acknowledge systemic factors that affect socioeconomic status

Background:

An individual’s successes and outcomes are affected by a variety of life experiences with systemic causes. Language that blames individuals for having a lower socioeconomic status ignores these structural issues. For example, using the phrase “lifestyle choices” to explain health disparities between socioeconomic groups masks the fact that inequities in society may severely limit the choices available to lower socioeconomic groups. For example, not eating as many fruits and vegetables may not be a conscious choice but rather the result of a lack of shops with fresh produce in a neighborhood. Similarly, the term “food desert” portrays access to food as a naturally occurring situation, whereas other terms, like “food apartheid,” aim to emphasize the racial discrimination and structural barriers that caused unequal food access in US society.

Recommendation:

Avoid characterizing an individual’s socioeconomic status or economic mobility as the result of individual behaviors. Provide context, and use language that accurately reflects the challenges and opportunities faced by different socioeconomic status groups. Avoid assigning morality to socioeconomic status. See also “Avoid deficit-based language for socioeconomic status.”

Examples:

Use:

“This has led to the development of introductory programs and support courses for students who experience opportunity gaps, which can improve students’ outcomes” (J. Chem. Educ. 2022, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c00339).

Avoid:

achievement gaps (“Achievement gaps” can imply that a difference in academic outcomes is a result of personal characteristics, whereas “opportunity gaps” emphasizes differences in circumstances.)

Use:

“There are good reasons some Americans find it difficult to work. For one, many families still don’t have child care. Only about half of schools have fully resumed in-person classes, and many child care providers haven’t reopened or returned to normal capacity” (Nation, June 10, 2021).

Avoid:

Unemployment benefits stop people from returning to work.

 

Use:

“ ‘My grandparents were bludgeoned every time the economy took a downturn,' Dee recalls, in part because of the legacy of redlining and the devaluation of property in Black neighborhoods” (Vox, Jan. 26, 2021).

Show variety within socioeconomic status groups

Background:

People within a particular socioeconomic status group may have markedly different experiences, behaviors, and aspirations depending on their geographic location, race, immigration status, age, gender, family structure, and many other factors. Implying that everyone in a group shares values or behaviors can seem inauthentic and alienate people.

Conceptualizations of the middle and working class are largely coded as White, despite evidence that demonstrates that the middle class is racially and ethnically diverse. Language that emphasizes the racial diversity within classes, such as explicitly naming different racial groups, can help people create a more accurate view of these classes. Rashad Robinson and Nicole Sussner Rodgers explain in a 2020 Color of Change report, “Rather than eliminating the use of this term [“working class”], it is important to continue to expand its meaning, and the range of people whose image it evokes. One way to do that is to explicitly insert Black people into the narrative it carries, for instance, by talking about Black, white and other working class communities.

Recommendation:

Avoid language that treats socioeconomic status groups as homogeneous or that treats higher socioeconomic status groups as the norm. See also “Recognize words that assume a cultural norm.” Actively include people of color in narratives about working-class and middle-class people. See also “Minorities, non-White.”

Example:

Use:

Buying a car is a privilege enjoyed by some teens in the US.

Avoid:

an important coming-of-age ritual for every teen

Do not use racially coded terms for socioeconomic status

Background:

Phrases like “inner city” and “ghetto” have historically been used to describe majority-Black neighborhoods, and they continue to be used as coded ways of referring to communities of color, especially Black communities. Racially coded terms like these are imprecise and unclear. They also tend to equate location with a characteristic and ignore the policies and systems that create and perpetuate inequalities. The problems that people associate with the “inner city,” for example, are not inherent to places at the cores of cities but are the result of discriminatory institutions. “Ghetto, in slang usage, has entirely lost the sense of forced segregation—the meaning it held for centuries. In a rapid about-face, it's become an indictment of individual choices,” Camila Domonoske says in a 2014 NPR article. See also “Avoid language that perpetuates racial or ethnic stereotypes or is rooted in violence against these groups.”

Recommendation:

Avoid pejorative, racially coded terms such as “urban,” “ghetto,” and “inner city.”

Example:

Use:

 “Majority-Black neighborhoods hold $609 billion in owner-occupied housing assets and are home to approximately 10,000 public schools and over 3 million businesses” (Brookings Institution, Nov. 27, 2018).

 

Avoid:

urban neighborhoods

How to refer to occupation

Background:

Calling jobs or people “unskilled” or “low skill” is imprecise, demeaning, and inaccurate, as these jobs are valuable and require many skills. These terms are often “lumping together entry-level jobs, jobs that do not require much education or a formal credential, jobs that do not require experienced workers, jobs without much opportunity for advancement, menial jobs, and—most of all—low-wage jobs,” Annie Lowrey says in a 2021 Atlantic article. Labeling the jobs and workers also seems to blame the people—who, at least in the US, are disproportionately immigrants—rather than the systems that created inequalities between types of jobs and the people who typically do those jobs. Furthermore, framing “low skill” jobs as only temporary waystations to something greater devalues those positions. “These so-called ‘unskilled’ jobs aren’t just stepping stones to something ‘greater’ or more ‘valuable.’ They aren’t merely summer jobs for teenagers and college students. These roles have immense value in and of themselves,” Haley Johnson says in 2022 Michigan Daily article.

Another way people describe jobs is using the terms “white collar” and “blue collar.” That terminology is vague, oversimplified, and outdated. Specific descriptions are clearer.

Recommendation:

Provide context and specific details when discussing jobs. Avoid representing some types of employment as being inherently better than others, and avoid describing jobs or workers as “unskilled” or “low skill.” Use specific descriptions instead of “blue collar” and “white collar.”

Examples:

Use:

"Out of all my high school jobs, lifeguarding came the closest to professional labor" (Michigan Daily, Jan. 30, 2022).

Avoid:

closest to a real job

Use:

Low wage laborers or small farmers collect plant material from forests, pastureland, roadsides, and fallow agricultural land” (ACS Symposium Series 2016, vol. 1218, DOI: 10.1021/bk-2016-1218.ch003).

Avoid:

low-skill workers

Use:

“Understanding the extent to which PFAS exposures differ between firefighters and office workers can elucidate which compounds are likely to have occupational sources” (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b05490).

Avoid:

white-collar workers

How to refer to housing status

Background:

People may experience chronic, transitional, or episodic homelessness, which can include living outdoors or in inadequate dwellings. Lower socioeconomic status groups and people living in poverty are at a higher risk of becoming homeless. The term “homeless” has different meanings to different people. “Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean someone is sleeping on the street or in a car. It can mean sleeping on a friend’s sofa due to the lack of an alternative. Many college students don’t realize this and, therefore, don’t consider themselves homeless,” Denise-Marie Ordway says in a 2019 article in the Journalist’s Resource.

Some organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, recommend person-first language, such as “people experiencing homelessness,” instead of “homeless people.” Some advocates, particularly on the West Coast of the US, use “unhoused,” using the verb form partly to signal that becoming homeless is the result of events and not inherent to a person. Others use “houseless” because “homeless” has become linked to negative stereotypes about people who do not have permanent housing.

Recommendation:

When discussing people who do not have access to fixed, regular, or adequate housing, describe the specific situation, and avoid generalizing and dehumanizing labels. Do not use the label “the homeless” (see also “Avoid labeling people by a characteristic”). In general, ask people how they want to be described, and respect that choice (see “Ask people how they want to be described, and respect that language”). If you cannot determine preference, use “people experiencing homelessness” or another person-first alternative instead of “homeless people” if you need to group people.

Example:

Use:

Large-scale additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, has drawn attention for its potential to create affordable, quickly constructed structures—like in Austin, Texas, where the technology was recently used to build homes for people experiencing homelessness (C&EN, Mar. 30, 2020).

Avoid:

the homeless

Avoid outdated and generalizing terms for countries

Background:

The terms “developing/developed” and “first/third world” are considered to be outdated, imprecise, and demeaning. “Developing” suggests that development is a linear process in which “developed” countries have reached full civilization. It assumes that countries that are “developing” must follow the models and ideologies of the “developed” to progress, and it ignores variation between and within countries categorized as “developed” or “developing.” In 2016, the World Bank stopped differentiating between “developed” and “developing” countries in its World Development Indicators.

“Global South” and “Global North” have emerged as more recent alternatives in scholarly communication. “Global South” usually refers to Latin America, Africa, Oceania, and lower-income countries in Asia. But these terms have also drawn criticism for their ambiguity, and they can obscure important differences within countries. Other groupings of regions, like “majority world” and “minority world,” are less well known. The problem with all names of global socioeconomic categories is that “grouping together a large variety of countries and regions into one category implies similarity across all the countries that are meant to comprise this group, one which simply does not exist economically, socially or politically,” Natasha Holland writes in a 2019 Travel for Difference post.

The Global Press Style Guide says of the terms “developing world/emerging economy/Global South”: “The terms are geographically imprecise, do not have widely accepted definitions and are generally used as sanitized synonyms for poverty. Using generalized terms to imply poverty across large land areas and countries that have little else in common reflects bias and defines complex communities by foreign standards of wealth.”

Recommendation:

Avoid using broad, vague terms that signal entire parts of the globe as “other,” such as "developed" and "developing” nations and "first world" and "third world" countries. When discussing groups of countries, identify them by name or specific geographic regions. If the groups are not based on location, specifically define the issues you are exploring, and use classifications based on actual data. For example, the World Bank classifies countries by gross national income per capita and reassesses the classifications each year. But note that generalizing across an entire country can inaccurately portray a country as homogenous.

Examples:

Use:

low-income countries in East Asia

 

Avoid:

the Global South

Use:

“The Dutch situation indicates the possibility of lowering As levels in high-income countries even without formal legislation but purely through decision making based on the precautionary principle” (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.0c03974).

Avoid:

first-world countries

Use:

“Unlike in the U.S., where academic researchers are largely supported by government funding, Cuba doesn’t give out grants or regular research stipends” (C&EN, April 24, 2017).

Avoid:

Unlike in developed countries . . . developing countries don’t


Resources on inclusive language for socioeconomic status