Underserved

Submitted by Fred Silverman, VP, Marketing and Communications, Marin Community Foundation

Tony Responds:
The use of “underserved” is so widespread that one might think it deserves to be condemned mainly as a cliche. But it’s actually worse than that. Even though everyone uses it (typically three times per page), hardly anyone ever pauses to think about what it means — or even what they want it to mean.

In this respect, it is textbook public-policy jargon — habitual cant, unexamined and imprecise. To prove my point about imprecision, consider some well-to-do suburban subdivisions. Many of them are, strictly speaking, underserved. They are walled-off all-residential enclaves without drug stores or dry cleaners or even bank branches. From most of these places, you have to bundle into the car and drive to just about any service you need — usually on clogged collector roads that slow, rather than speed, your journey. And yet no one ever considers these places “deprived.”

We assume that a 45-minute drive in the family sedan is a privilege of wealth, and that people in these places have the means to hunt down whatever they need. This more or less proves that “deprivation,” not service levels, is what people really have in mind when they use minced euphemisms like “underserved.”

This word belongs in a class with “at risk” and “access,” in that it leaves at least half its point dangling. At risk of what? Underserved by whom? Access by what means? And just what would be an acceptable level of service, or risk, or access? The use of “underserved” presumes that we are dealing with some population that obviously needs some kind of service and can’t get it. But something about the idea of “need” gives us the heebie-jeebies.

So, in an excess of delicacy, we refer not to the need itself but to someone’s failure to meet it. We rarely say why people can’t get the service: Does it not exist? Are incomes too low to afford what is available? Is there no public transportation? Do the current providers have too little money to serve more people? In the most irritating uses of this word, the author doesn’t specify what the need is, who is failing to provide it and why, or even why it is needed. We just know that the “community” (itself a place whose boundaries are usually left to the imagination) is “under ” what it ought to be.

As with most jargon, “underserved” would be pardonable enough (although still dull and repetitive) if people would first spell out what “service” is lacking, why people need it, and what an “adequately served” community would look like. Some careful authors do that, after which they are guilty of nothing more than an unlovely word choice. But “underserved” has come to be a standard placeholder for unspeakable (and thus unexamined) realities like “poor,” “powerless,” and “unsure where to turn for help.” When the word is used without enough explanation to set the scene and describe what the problem is, it gives us no real information for making a judgment or even picturing the solution. It’s just a soothing sound — a lullaby ideal for putting critics to sleep.

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