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Why do we say that people are low-income? We hear this language all the time on the news:
“Most of all, this policy will affect low-income people.”
“Low-income people are more likely to vote for ______.”
“Low-income people tend to use these resources.”
While I’m about to be critical of this, I confess that I have used the same kind of language at times. We tend to form our sentences so that ‘low-income’ becomes part of the subject — a descriptor completely embedded with the word ‘people.’ In other words,
We tend to say that people are low-income
– rather than saying –
People have low-incomes.
These ways of using words might reveal something unconscious as to what we believe concerning class and personhood in the U.S. We tend to think that class and wealth (or lack there of) reveal something about who you are.
We also say that people are rich, and people are middle class. It is rare to hear that people have wealthy incomes, or that people have middle-incomes.
This helps us think about people in ways that are two-dimensional or flat-out false.
So if you have lower incomes or less access to gaining wealth in this country, you are. . . fill in the stereotypes. . . Stereotypes like lazy, entitled, uneducated, or foolish.
The income you have is entirely your fault: It’s who you are.
Meanwhile, if you have higher incomes or greater access to gaining wealth in this country, you are. . . fill in the praise. . . Praise like hard-working, creative, educated, or smart.
The income you have is entirely your accomplishment: It’s who you are.
These are the assumptions our wider culture tends to make because we have been taught to believe these things. Sometimes, we believe and share them consciously. Other times, they influence us on an unconscious level.
My suspicion is this: If we moved away from this intransitive language — “People are low-income” — and started using verbs like ‘have’ — “People have low incomes” — we would have to acknowledge the economic and political systems that cause such a reality. We would have to consider the chapters of U.S. history which have played a role in this outcome.
If we moved away from intransitive language — “People are rich” — and started using verbs like ‘have’ — “People have wealth” — we would have to acknowledge the economic and political systems that cause such a reality. We would have to consider the chapters of U.S. history which have played a role in this outcome.
That’s the harder, more honest work.