By Karen Weese Read online in Pacific Standard Magazine

In a study about identity, female Asian-American college students were asked to take a math test. Before the test, one group was asked questions that primed them to think of themselves as women first (for example, their views about co-ed dorms). The other group was asked questions that primed them to think of themselves as Asian first (what languages they spoke at home, and how many generations of their family had lived in the United States).

The women primed to think of themselves as female performed worse on the test than those primed to think of themselves as Asian. Simply awakening different sides of their identity — and the stereotypes that go with each — actually changed their performance.

Many organizations are realizing that the language they use, and thus the identities they prime, really matter, says Matt Helmer, senior policy analyst at the Seattle Housing Authority and author of a 2015 white paper on behavioral economics in workforce development. “We need to make sure that we’re not unintentionally reinforcing the stereotypes or stigmas that people face just by being poor in America today,” he says.

At the workforce-development non-profit Cincinnati Works, participants are respectfully welcomed into an attractive, well-lit office and referred to not as recipients, but as members. At the non-profit Economic Mobility Pathways in Boston, participants are coached by “mobility mentors” toward individualized life goals they have set for themselves. Families in Habitat for Humanity’s homebuilding program are called homeowners from day one, and they physically build their homes and pay a low-cost mortgage.

These choices in language and program design awaken an identity of active participant rather than passive recipient, thus fostering a sense of dignity.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in January/February 2017 print issue as a sidebar to “This Is Your Brain on Poverty.