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Socioeconomic Status

Published on April 18, 2022 · Updated on April 19, 2022

Why it's important

In 2020, the Hope Center surveyed1 over 195,000 college students, and nearly 3 in 5 reported facing some form of basic needs insecurity that year. Housing insecurity affected nearly half (48%) of all students surveyed, and 14% of students experienced homelessness.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened food and housing security issues for many people, the Hope Center found similar data in student surveys prior to 2020. In 2019, they found2 that 46% of the 167,000 students surveyed were housing insecure, and 17% experienced homelessness in the previous year.

There are many systemic reasons why students may experience food and housing insecurity, including the increasingly high cost of college.3 However, some language perpetuates the misconception that people experiencing these challenges are at fault and that a person's socioeconomic status reflects their overall worth. Conscious language can help destigmatize economic issues.

Basic Needs Security and Homelessness

Although definitions of homelessness and food and housing insecurity vary across different organizations and governmental agencies, keep the following general guidance in mind when discussing these complex issues:

  • Avoid language that treats food or housing security issues as permanent. Many students experience these issues temporarily.
  • Contextualize food and housing security issues whenever possible and appropriate. This is a widespread problem facing many students in the U.S., not a purely individual set of concerns.
  • Don’t use language that indicates that the student is to blame for their housing and/or food insecurity.
  • In general, stick to person-first language when discussing homelessness
  • Also consider using “shelterless,” “unhoused,” or “houseless” instead of “homeless” to avoid the stigma associated with the word “homeless.”4

Don’t Use

Do Use

homeless students, the homeless
students experiencing homelessness, students without housing
the homeless problem
homelessness

Inclusivity

One of the best ways to introduce conscious language around socioeconomic issues into your vocabulary is to use language that is inclusive of many different economic situations and backgrounds. For example:

  • Avoid using the term “affordable” based on your own biases. Instead, get specific about associated costs or cost ranges.
  • Be conscious of advice — like “hire a tutor” — that might apply only to those with the means to pay for that service. Try to include options, resources, or services that don’t cost a lot of money.
  • If promoting an event, meeting, or club that involves a fee, include the cost in all announcements, as well as information about available fee waivers or sliding scale payment options.
  • Consider including information about low-cost transit options when appropriate.
  • Don’t assume all students have abundant free time. Students may balance work and school or may be a caregiver.

Socioeconomic Status Terminology

While the best language to use when referring to socioeconomic status is continually evolving, the following chart lists some current best practices.

hint: scroll to view the full table

Do Use

low-income student
"Low-income" is generally acceptable as a descriptor.
under-resourced
"Under-resourced" is acceptable when describing resource disparities among social groups. In the context of higher education, this often includes low-income students, first-generation college students, and students of color.
first-generation college student
This term refers to students whose parents either did not attend college or did not graduate from college (definitions vary). Don't equate first-generation students with low-income learners; students may or may not fall into both categories.
historically excluded
Consider using this term when appropriate, especially as a replacement for "underrepresented."

Use Caution

Pell-eligible, Pell recipients
Avoid using this term as a euphemism for low-income; since Pell Grant eligibility depends on citizenship status, using this term to mean "low-income" excludes undocumented students.
students from low-income backgrounds
Avoid using this when you mean "currently low-income," since a student's socioeconomic background and current income are not necessarily the same. Use "low-income" instead.
underserved
Only use in regards to actual service disparities or inequities, not as a general umbrella term for those with low incomes.
underrepresented
This term may be acceptable depending on the context. As always, aim to be as specific as possible and avoid generalizing about broad groups of people.

Don’t Use

vulnerable
This term can be offensive as a general descriptor applied to a large group of people as it de-emphasizes their agency. It also lacks specificity.
poor, impoverished
These terms can be offensive to some people. However, as always, respect someone's individual right to self-identify however they wish.
Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Reviewed by:

Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in English and successful writing at Central Washington University for over 21 years. Currently, Abdalla serves as a Washington state career coach and advocate for individuals on temporary state assistance. Abdalla has devoted her career, teaching, and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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Student Homelessness and Basic Needs Insecurity

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Sources

  1. The Hope Center. (2021, March 31). #Realcollege 2021: Basic needs insecurity during the ongoing pandemic. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/RCReport2021.pdf
  2. Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Goldrick-Rab, S., Looker, E., Richardson, B., & Williams, T. (2020, February). #Realcollege 2020: Five years of evidence on campus basic needs insecurity. The Hope Center. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2019_RealCollege_Survey_Report.pdf
  3. Boitnott, J. (2020, March 13). Why is college so expensive?. BestColleges. https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/why-is-college-so-expensive/
  4. Slayton, N. (2021, May 21). Time to retire the word 'homeless' and opt for 'houseless' or 'unhoused' instead?. Architectural Digest. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/homeless-unhoused