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Class and Social Standing

gig economy

The gig economy involves using freelance or temporary workers to perform jobs normally associated with the service sector such as food delivery, ride-hail driving, freelance tasks including manual labor (e.g., movers), pet and house sitting, and shopping. More euphemistic terms like “side hustle” are generally best reserved for direct quotes, as this may present such activities in overly cheery terms that obscure the labor behind them.

haves / have-nots

Haves and have-nots are vague terms for income status, often used in conjunction with one another. Opting for more specific language about an individual’s or group’s socioeconomic status, such as including income levels, can bring greater clarity.

homelessness / houselessness

Homelessness and houselessness are terms for the state of individuals currently lacking a regular nighttime residence. Person-first language such as “people without housing,” “people without homes,” or “person experiencing homelessness (or houselessness)” may read as less stigmatizing than a phrase like “the homeless,” as it reinforces that houselessness is one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them. “Houseless” or “unhoused” also decouples the concept from the more positive connotation of “home,” and encompasses more than “homeless,” as this could also refer to, for example, living in one’s vehicle.

housing security / insecurity

Terms used to refer to the stability of an individual or family’s housing and living situation. No single index or definition of these terms exist, so it can be helpful to explain local concerns, such as noting if a region is more impacted by houselessness than another, along with the systemic factors that may be involved.

incarcerated person

An incarcerated person is someone confined to a prison, mental hospital, or similar institution. In general, person-first language, or phrasing such as “X individual, who was convicted of a felony,” puts the focus on the individual rather than one aspect of their circumstances, especially contrasted with terms such as ex-con, felon, convict, and criminal, which risk defining someone solely by their experience with the criminal legal system. In headlines or in shorthand, the term “prisoner” may be more straightforward and humanizing than a term like “felon” or “convict,” since not all individuals housed in jails and prisons are convicted of crimes, and such terms often imply a sense of guilt to the general public. The terms jail and prison are not interchangeable: Generally, jail is for those who have just been arrested or are awaiting trial or sentencing, though some serving shorter sentences will do so in jail. Prison is generally for those serving longer sentences.

income / wealth

Income refers to payment for one’s work/labor. Wealth refers to the net worth of an individual or household. Wealth is often conflated with spending habits, which can lead to inaccurate depictions. Focusing on wealth in detail also helps dispel many of the myths associated with being “rich” in the US since much of it is generational (e.g., passing down houses from generation to generation). Referring to individuals or families as “low wealth” is a more straightforward alternative to terms like “poor” or “struggling,” which may seem to editorialize and may not match a person’s actual experiences.

inner city

Inner city is a coded term for a densely populated and generally less wealthy section of a city. Clearer, more precise language would be a description like “neighborhood where X percent of the population is below the federal poverty line” or simply referring to the neighborhood(s) affected.  

living wage / minimum wage

Minimum wage is the lowest wage an employer legally has to pay an employee; a living wage is less precisely defined and is highly contingent on outside factors, including the cost of living in a particular area. The MIT Living Wage Calculator is one well-known method for understanding an area’s living wage. The term can be used in direct quotes, but it can also be helpful to note that there is no universal living wage and that it is highly contingent on cost of living factors in different areas.

low-skilled labor

Low-skilled labor is associated with a lack of specialized training or educational attainment, requiring only a minimal skill set. The term “manual labor” is also used; some government departments and organizations refer to unskilled work or unskilled labor, though clarifying the criteria is helpful.

manufactured home / modular home / mobile home

Manufactured home can refer to a factory-constructed home transported to a home site. Modular homes are governed by state guidelines and are more likely to be transportable between locations. Mobile homes refer to constructions made prior to changes in federal construction codes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, when the agency adopted the term “manufactured home” for any new movable housing. “Manufactured home” may carry less negative connotations than something like “trailer,” which may reinforce classist stereotypes. Similarly, when it comes to areas where numerous homes are located, using “mobile home encampment” or “park” is an alternative to the historically negative catchall “trailer park.”

Last updated 08/05/22

Honest discussions of money and social standing and the myriad factors that determine them are often complicated, and the language of US news coverage tends to reflect that. People may rely on established euphemisms or coded terms when more specific language would be more illuminating.

This section of the Language, Please style guidance aims to help journalists recognize language that’s weighed down in subtext and navigate subjects of socioeconomic status and social standing in a nuanced way.

This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.

How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms. 

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