People from Low-income Backgrounds

The ways in which we talk and write about people with low incomes or people who come from low-income backgrounds should convey compassion, inclusion and sensitivity. It's also important to not to equate being low-income with struggling for basic needs. They are not synonymous.

There are several terms that are often used in the context of discussing people of low-income background. These include:

• Socioeconomic status (SES): Tends to refer to a combination of factors related to a person's social class. In the context of students, this typically includes family income, parental education (e.g., first-generation status) and parental occupation.
• Underrepresented: Underrepresented refers to racial and ethnic populations that are represented at disproportionately low levels in higher education. Historically means that this is a 10-year or longer trend at a given school. Underrepresented minorities are African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos, who have historically comprised a minority of the U.S. population. The term is mostly used for reporting aggregate student data.
• Underserved: Underserved students are defined as those who do not receive equitable resources as other students in the academic pipeline. Typically, these groups of students include low-income, racial/ethnic minorities ("people of color" or "students of color" is the preferred use, not "minorities") and first-generation students, among others.

General Guidelines

• Choose "food security" over "food insecurity" (a deficit-focused approach). A person may be facing food security issues or concerns. "Hunger" is a symptom of very low food security, but "hunger" and "hungry" should be used carefully.

• Choose "homelessness" over "housing insecurity" (not "housing instability"). Consider that both housing and food security issues fall on a spectrum, with homelessness being the most urgent, acute end of the housing security spectrum.

• Dealing with a lack of money, food, and/or reliable housing is a source of shame for some, but not all, people. Approach the topic with sensitivity and ask if the person feels comfortable sharing in any content that will be made public, including photographs. Describe the issue as a national housing and financial aid crisis that pushes many people into these circumstances.

• Avoid words like low-class, poor, impoverished, underprivileged or disadvantaged as descriptors. 

• Watch for assumptions and biases in your writing about the reasons for their income status, stereotypes, etc.

** Main source: Basic Needs Initiative, The California State University

Page last modified July 21, 2022