We Need Better Language to Describe Poverty



Ms. Ellie Herman writes a powerful essay,  “We need better language to describe poverty”.  Her  up-close experience with specific students  illustrates others’ misunderstanding and misuses of the term “poverty”.

“Poverty”, as the term is used in Education and research circles, is often, way too often, only a poor proxy for causal variables (at best) and a horrible, unthinking, general catchall for those who haven’t lived the life.  A textbook example of “correlation is not causation”.

The semantic crime then snowballs through interpretation and application. Some make connections and draw conclusions, misleading conclusions, then make recommendations, and finally, decisions(for others) based on inappropriate generalization from the term.

All the while, understanding and action on the direct causal factors are delayed or lost completely.

Specifically,   in my own experience in Public Education I find the misinterpretation and misuse even more incriminating when “poverty” is used in place of a more specific causal variable,  “childhood trauma”.  The resulting confusion and the destruction of understanding result in a lack of resources applied to the root, or causal issue. In many cases the resulting policies in Public Education are a violation of civil rights at least the right to equal access to education.

Yes, unaddressed childhood trauma can be more prevalent in poor areas.   Yet, Childhood Trauma is the underlying Independent variable(!),  and likely  the next stop for “Brown vs. the Board”   Virtually all the terms in the graphic above are a subset, or sources, of trauma, whether urban, suburban, rural, rich or poor. Poverty is only (sometimes) one of the many sources in the childhood trauma universe.

The original research on “adverse childhood experiences (ACE)by CDC/Kaiser found almost that about one-fourth of us have three or more ACEs.  The research participants were mostly middle-class, mostly employed, white, college educated folks with jobs and medical insurance in suburban San Diego !

Three or more ACEs is significant because it correlates with doubled risk of depression, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and STDs.  There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.

Although only a subset of childhood trauma, “poverty” becomes larger than life when used in racist semantics. “Poverty” has become far too politicized.  Half the audience immediately leaves the discussion, without a hearing,  simply because of divergent economic philosophies about the semantics.

We need better language to describe poverty

Meanwhile, misusing the loaded term “poverty”, and/or our fear of “looking closely” are delaying our clarity about “what it will really take for our most at-risk children to begin to heal and learn.”


Bravo Ellie Herman !
(July 18, 2104)


Gatsby In L.A.

I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.

My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?


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