This mystifying expression owes its popularity to one embarrassing fact: The phrase almost always designates a category of people of whom it is awkward to speak honestly. Almost every branch of charity or human service uses AT-RISK to describe the people whom its practitioners are… well, worried about. Here is one sample definition, from Education Week:
AT-RISK describes a student with socioeconomic challenges, such as poverty or teen pregnancy, which may place them [sic] at a disadvantage in achieving academic, social, or career goals. Such students are deemed “at risk” of failing, dropping out, or “falling through the cracks.”
Generalize from education to other fields of social concern, and AT-RISK becomes simply the polite euphemism for “headed into trouble.” But in today’s etiquette of upbeat and respectful neutrality, it would be considered grotesquely prejudicial, not to say hostile, to describe people that way. AT-RISK, however, is regarded as abstract enough to be polite, even in mixed company.
Yet if those who use this word are honest, they must admit to being perfectly comfortable classifying people according to a vast realm of unspecified problems that those people do not even have yet. Many people therefore read with scant discomfort that a program “addresses the needs of at-risk youth,” never demanding the least description of what the youth are at-risk of. Everyone presumably already knows: The youth are headed into trouble.
Now, we are not so coarse as to suggest describing troubled people as “troubled.” But surely there are some descriptions slightly more explicit than AT-RISK that do not offend the sensitivity gendarmes. The sibling euphemisms “disadvantaged” and “underserved” are admittedly overused, but unlike AT-RISK, they are at least not transparently unfinished thoughts.
Even when a writer decides that no other expression but AT-RISK could possibly do, it may be healthy at least to spend a moment asking, of what? If it is possible to answer that question concisely – as in “of violence,” “of pregnancy,” or “of dropping out of school” – then it would be a step in the right direction simply to finish the thought that at-risk begins. “This program addresses the needs of youth who are at risk of dropping out of school” or “who may be drawn into gangs,” or “who risk early pregnancy.”
In some cases, of course, the writer genuinely may not know what a person’s real risk is. That is a sad fact – not about writers, or about jargon, but about life. Often, people really are simply headed into trouble, and we can’t say exactly what that trouble might be. Would that it were different. But when it’s not, perhaps AT-RISK truly is the best we can do.