When you are writing, you need to follow general principles to ensure that your language is free of bias. Here we provide guidelines for talking about socioeconomic status with inclusivity and respect.
Socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses not only income but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. SES encompasses quality of life attributes and opportunities afforded to people within society and is a consistent predictor of a vast array of psychological outcomes. Thus, SES should be reported as part of the description of participants in the Method section. Because SES is complex, it is not indexed similarly in all studies; therefore, precise terminology that appropriately describes a level of specificity and sensitivity is essential to minimize bias in language around SES (for a discussion, see Diemer et al., 2013).
When reporting SES, provide as much detailed information as possible about people’s income, education, and occupations or employment circumstances. For example, when referring to “low-income participants” or “high-income participants,” classify whether reported incomes take into account household size, or provide information about the relation between household incomes and federal poverty guidelines. Additionally, SES can be described by providing information related to specific contextual and environmental conditions such as participants’ housing arrangement (e.g., renting a home, owning a home, residing in subsidized housing) and neighborhood characteristics such as median household income, percentage of unemployed people, or proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in local schools.
Pejorative or Stereotyping Terms
Avoid using broad, pejorative, and generalizing terms to discuss SES. Specifically, negative connotations are associated with terms such as “the homeless,” “inner-city,” “ghetto,” “the projects,” “poverty stricken,” and “welfare reliant.” Instead, use specific, person-first language such as “mothers who receive TANF benefits” rather than “welfare mothers” (“TANF” stands for “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” and is the proper term for the current welfare program in the United States). When discussing people without a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence, use specific language that addresses the quality or lack of housing or length of time without housing, not whether the people consider their residence a home. That is, use language like “people experiencing homelessness,” “people who are homeless,” “people in emergency shelter,” or “people in transitional housing,” rather than calling people “the homeless.”
It is important to note that SES terms such as “low-income” and “poor” have historically served as implicit descriptors for racial and/or ethnic minority people. Thus, it is critical that authors include racial and/or ethnic descriptors within SES categories—for example, “This sample includes low-income and middle-income Puerto Rican fathers.” Implicit biases around economic and occupational status can result in deficit-based language that blames individuals for their occupational, educational, or economic situation (e.g., “attendant economic deficits”) rather than recognizing a broader societal context that influences individual circumstances. Deficit-based language also focuses on what people lack rather than on what they possess. Instead of labeling people as “high school dropouts,” “being poorly educated,” or “having little education,” provide more sensitive and specific descriptors such as “people who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent.” Alternatively, by adopting a strengths-based perspective, authors can write about “people who have a grade school education.” Likewise, instead of writing about an “achievement gap,” write about an “opportunity gap” to emphasize how the context in which people live affects their outcomes or opportunities.
Examples of Bias-Free Language
The following are examples of bias-free language for socioeconomic status. Both problematic and preferred examples are presented with explanatory comments.
1. Description of legal status
individuals who are undocumented, people who are undocumented
undocumented people, undocumented children, undocumented adults
people who lack documents required for legal immigration
Comment: Individuals who are undocumented come from a variety of countries and ethnic groups. Although their status may be illegal, the people themselves are not. Moreover, families will have a mix of documented and undocumented individuals in the same family. Be specific about which group is being included.
2. Description of income
people whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold
people whose self-reported income were in the lowest income bracket
Comment: Many find the terms “low class” and “poor” pejorative. Use person-first language instead. Define income brackets and levels if possible.
3. Description of housing status
the projects, the ghetto, the inner city
people experiencing homelessness, youth experiencing homelessness
people who are homeless
people who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, or in transitional housing
people without fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence
low-income housing, low-income areas of the city
Comment: Use specific language that addresses the quality or lack of housing or length of time without housing rather than focusing on whether an individual considers a residence a home. Individuals can be precariously housed or experience chronic or transient homelessness. Avoid conflating social class and race or ethnicity by using coded language like “inner city,” “projects,” or “ghetto.” Specify race or ethnicity and measures of socioeconomic standing separately.
4. Description of government assistance
mothers who receive TANF benefits
people who are unable to work because of a disability
families whose main income is from TANF benefits
Comment: Avoid language that focuses on blaming the individual or on individual deficits. Instead focus on contextualizing individuals’ status location and on what participants have (not what they lack). TANF stands for “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” and is the proper term for the current welfare program in the United States.
5. Description of educational attainment
people who have completed 10th grade
people with less than a high-school education
Comment: Avoid language that focuses on blaming the individual or on individual deficits; instead, focus on what people have, not what they lack. When comparing groups, use parallel terminology (e.g., people with a high school diploma vs. without a high school diploma or equivalent, not high-school dropouts vs. high-school graduates).
Diemer, M. A., Mistry, R. S., Wadsworth, M. E., López, I., & Reimers, F. (2013). Best practices in conceptualizing and measuring social class in psychological research. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 77–113. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12001