On Using the Word “Poor”

Okay, time for a diatribe. For many people when they use the phrase “I’m poor” it’s at the end of the phrase “I can’t. I’m poor.” Everyone gives a chuckle. (“He-he I’m in poverty!”) For many this would be a legitimate phrase to use if they wished to be blunt about why they cannot do something due to financial circumstances. However, when an upper-middle class 20-year-old college student can’t pitch in for beer money or just needs someone to cover them for dinner while they go out because they happen to not have money on them on a particular night, this is not poor. Or when a family member hands to you $20 off-hand to have some recreational cash and he or she says, “Oh take it. You’re a poor college student. Have some fun”, this is not poor. By saying this, people diminish the struggles some people who do not have the same means as them go through, much like when a celebrity compares some possibly over-the-top intrusiveness to rape. (Sorry Kurt Cobain.) If you have a roof over your head, you’re getting a college education at no expense to you, you’re well-fed, you have health insurance, and the only concern you have about money is how much recreation you can do with it you’re not poor and you shouldn’t use that word to describe your situation. Now, I’m not saying this to get everyone into a relativity scale of wealth and income, but that maybe we shouldn’t compare not having enough cash on hand to go out to eat one or two nights while still knowing we’ll eat, still knowing our bills are taken care of, still knowing where we’ll sleep, without worrying about the job we don’t have to get up at 4AM for, without worrying whether we’ll be able to have gas in the tank, without worrying whether the daycare will be gracious enough let us wait for the next paycheck to pay for us to keep our kid there, without worrying whether we’ll be able to put that elderly relative in a retirement home if that becomes necessary, whether we’ll be homeless if that boss we’re on thin ice with fires us or any other myriad of circumstances that some poor people face that is grossly exaggerated by poverty.

This is all not to say that it’s not justifiably uncomfortable when your friends want to do something and you won’t have cash for a few days and so you have to say either no or ask to borrow money. This is not to say that all of who I mean by the poor want to be pitied or even want to be known as “the poor.” This is to say: maybe we shouldn’t compare a small hiccup, inconvenience, or awkward interaction to the anxieties and real problems faced while living in poverty. Also, there are poor college students. Don’t insult your classmates by using the same word that might to describe their life circumstances for not being able to do something that in those circumstances might not be foreseeable for some time, or maybe not even imaginable.  

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