Where Are the Humans? 
The Language of Economic Insecurity

Many people compare and contrast the Great Depression with our current economic troubles, to gain some perspective and perhaps find solutions from past experience. But the words used to describe our plight today almost sound like a different language.

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt looked for solutions that would place “the security of the men, women and children of the nation first.” He said that all Americans “want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguards against misfortune which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours.”

Today, both the president and members of Congress talk about “improving our fiscal situation,” “achieving financial sustainability,” and addressing “the growth of entitlement spending.”

As two leading academics put in a recent New York Times essay, “the desperate situation of many Americans (is) reduced to the clinical language of budgetary accounting.” They continue: “In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared.”

The language of economics and individualism has replaced the language of our common circumstances and shared risks. That’s why what used to be considered social insurance is now noted as “entitlements,” viewed by some as a threat to our national well-being instead of as a safety net for family-income security.

In the highly emotional issue of illegal immigration, we also see dehumanizing language. Just look at the now-common term “illegals.” Not “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants” or “undocumented workers.” Actions are illegal, people aren’t. Again, no matter how you feel about the issue, the dehumanizing language is uncalled for.

As a writer of corporate reports and speeches, I see plenty of this dehumanizing language in the business world – and I try to steer my clients away from it. At a time when companies are cutting workforces, for example, phrases like “workforce imbalance correction,” “constructive discharge,” and “career alternative enhancement” don’t fool anyone and serve to inflame the cynicism that is already pervasive.

Even if the economic news is bad, let’s respect our fellow citizens and talk about policies with some humanity and simple language. Sure, we need to use technical terms and data to work through the very complex economic mess we’re in. But when decisions are based solely on numbers and calculations, we tend to leave flesh-and-blood people, families and shared social concerns out in the cold.

Don Heymann

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