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  • Jack H. Bender

Words Matter

Words are powerful. Words, some true, some false, have split our nation in half. Even one word can determine the fate of millions of people. The word “socialism” can keep millions of Americans from having life-saving health care that is a given in all other developed countries. A “hoax” has killed 360,000 in our country alone. A single word can kill.

I’ve been thinking about the words “the poor,” and wondering if those two words need replacements. I think so. A widely held opinion is that “the poor” are vulnerable because of their behaviors. Something they’ve done has made them poor. In general, that’s not true. I addressed this misconception months ago:

Author and journalist Maia Szalavitz asks, “Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?” She describes a mental trick called “fundamental attribution error.” We tend to mistakenly blame the condition of poverty on the character of the poor while we attribute our own behaviors to circumstances. Because of our distance from the lives of the poor, we substitute blame for our ignorance about poverty in general and the circumstances of specific people.

I’ve also been thinking about the words “poverty is policy.” Wages have been static for over forty years and, recently, we’ve watched congress give huge tax breaks to billionaires while telling struggling Americans that $600 for nine months is enough to offset the crushing effects of the pandemic. Poverty is the result of policy. Policies make and keep low-wage people poor.

If “the poor” is not adequate communication, then what do we call people who are victims of crushing, systemic policies? A reference to the poor should point us toward a corrupt system wielded by out-of-touch, greedy, power-hungry people, not the poor themselves. The word exists:


The dispossessed are people who has been deprived of land, property, or other possessions. Synonyms for dispossessed include stripped of, cheated out of, and robbed. Frozen wages and tax policy have cheated the dispossessed. With evictions, bankruptcies and forfeiture of homes looming, other definitions apply as well: without property, status, etc., as wandering or displaced persons; rootless; disfranchised, having suffered the loss of expectations, prospects, relationships, etc.; disinherited; disaffiliated; alienated.

Only part of our job is done if we begin using “the dispossessed.” If we concentrate only on the dispossessed, we will not be looking at the people in business and government who make and keep others poor. We will not become critical of a system designed and maintained by the wealthy and powerful to help them become even more wealthy and powerful.

A Robber Baron is a person who has become rich through ruthless and unscrupulous business practices (originally with reference to prominent US businessmen in the late 19th century). Oxford’s example: "both political parties served the interests of the corporate robber barons." In the era of the robber barons, inequality became unbearable (just like today). The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson (May 23, 2019) wrote an opinion piece titled These are the Golden Days of Sleaze. A sleaze, sleazeball, or sleazebag is a disreputable, disgusting, or despicable person in business or politics. Though available, I think the use of these terms won’t get us very far.

Going forward, I want to pepper my dialog with a robust list of reminders and solutions that we need to hear repeatedly: I am my brother’s keeper, there’s enough for everyone, all men are created equal, justice delayed is justice denied, taxation must be fair, all deserve living wages, black lives matter, love thy neighbor, etc. Of course, we have to supplement our words with action.

What can work is voting for candidates that run on a justice/equality platform that includes a refusal to take PAC money, candidates who have empathy, who have struggled, who have been shortchanged by the system. If “poverty is policy,” then we need politicians who will change policy, who will fight for every person, but especially the vulnerable, while not be beholden to SuperPACs.

This 1/3/21 tweet from brand new U.S. Representative Cori Bush: “I’ve survived sexual assault, police abuse, domestic violence, and being unhoused and uninsured. That’s not a unique pain I carry. It’s one that so many of us live with each day. Today, I take my seat in Congress to fight for a world where nobody has to endure that pain.”


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