Poor Euphemisms

Julian Sanchez takes issue with the use of the words “underresourced” and “underprivileged” as euphemisms for “poor,” arguing that the former is ungrammatical and the latter incoherent.

He’s right, I think, that “poor” is both descriptive and inoffensive. Arguably, though, some substantial percentage of Americans living in “poverty” are in fact merely “underprivileged” in precisely the way Julian objects to the use of the word:

Underprivileged makes no sense because a “privilege” is a special favor or advantage. It is, by definition, not the sort of thing everyone is supposed to have. You can wish to live in a society where nobody is poor, but it’s just incoherent to wish for a society in which “everybody is privileged,” though the “under” implies that this would be desirable.

We live in a society in which case it is not only possible but commonplace to be simultaneously fat and poor. Almost any “poor” American would be considered “privileged” indeed by a poor African.

Still, relative deprivation has a legitimate role. In a society with as much aggregate wealth as ours, it’s reasonable enough to expect that children will have adequate provision of nutritious food, decent housing, adequate clothing, and decent education and medical care.

Given that the cause of the lack of these is often bad parenting rather than genuine deprivation (i.e., the parent(s) aren’t working or even seeking gainful employment or they’re allocating their kids’ food budget to illicit drugs), though, the public policy consequences of an expansive definition could be boundless.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    Didn’t you get the memo? On average, we’re all above average.

  2. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    I have seen poor people, in India and the Middle East, so I have a good idea of what poor means. People who lived in a structure consisting of dirt floor, block walls with corrugated metal sheet roofing, no electricity or running water, in summer temperatures that averaged 120 degrees. Yet these people worked for what little they had.

    I am always amazed about references to the poor in my area when these “poor” people have public housing with all the amenities, drive a vehicle, have cell phones, watch color TV, and buy their groceries with an EBT card (paid by my taxes) yet do little other than complain about being poor.

    The trouble with this country is that the term “poor” has been substituted for “fat, dumb, and lazy”!

  3. Bithead says:


    Sorry, but the only reason I can see for switching it from “Poor” to “underresourced” and “underprivileged” is that the latter are far easier to tag as ‘victims”.

    Victimization, of course, being a central theme of those promoting the welfare state, these days.

  4. Wayne says:

    Being poor and being underprivileged is two different things. However there is a certain amount of overlap and being poor can make it difficult and sometimes impossible to have certain privileges.

    Getting sound advice on College is very difficult to get from parents who never been to College. The privilege of having a parent show up to at least some of your home games is difficult for a parent that works 16 hours a day. Going to camp, getting financial advice for what little money one works for, what it takes to be a professional, etc is usually difficult for the poor since very few have had that experience or the resources to do so.

    Granted there is the Internet today, which can be a great help, even if you have to go to the library. Amazing enough there are people who don’t know that you can get on the Internet at the library.

    Also granted there are parents who simply don’t care what grade their kids get or how well they do at sports or anything else. There is a higher % of poor parents who are that way. How much is directly or indirectly attributed to being poor, I am not sure. However it is hard to care when one is miserable and being poor make most miserable.

  5. Wayne says:

    I for one hate the welfare system we have now. However there are a great number of people who are poor who do not get or seek welfare.

    Yes being poor is relative. However a kid showing up to school without school supplies, clothes full of holes, and living off of school lunches would qualify as poor by U.S. standards and that is the community most of us live in.

  6. Anderson says:

    You’re poor when you’re too damn badly off to quibble with anyone as to whether you’re “poor” or “underprivileged.”

  7. just me says:

    I think coming up with euphemisms is rediculous, people know what it stands for and it isn’t like poor is some kind of insult-it is the correct definition.

    It reminds me of the various attempts of the social services crowd to change various labels for the disabled-physically/mentally challenged, and my favorite differently abled. I think sometimes they are more designed to make us feel better for our blessings than to somehow protect those who are disabled.