Vulnerable

Submitted by Fred Silverman, Vice President for Marketing and Communications, Marin Community Foundation

I have a problem with “vulnerable” (as in “vulnerable populations,” “vulnerable communities,” and “vulnerable environments”), but my problem isn’t lexical. I don’t actually think it’s a bad word, though it’s certainly been overused to the point of exhaustion. Especially in philanthropy — where one key reason for our work is to do something to benefit people in trouble, or for people who may be on the verge of trouble — it is not only useful but important to have expressions that mean “in trouble” or “on the verge of trouble.”

And since we tend to write about those conditions all the time, we are constantly in danger of overusing the words that describe them: “distressed,” “disadvantaged,” “low-income,” “neglected,” and, yes, “vulnerable.”

Now, admittedly, some of these terms reek of excessive political daintiness. (With apologies to Pedro Almodóvar, “distressed communities” always sounds to me like “Neighborhoods on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”) And some (like “low-income”) are just needlessly social-sciency expressions for good, solid Middle-English words like “poor.” When FDR needed words to describe the effects of the Great Depression, he did not haul out the Dictionary of the Social Sciences; he gave us “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

Today, if one of the Washington think tanks were drafting that famous Second Inaugural, they would have written “thirty-three percent of the resident population in substandard dwellings, with insufficient income for basic apparel and inadequate access to minimum dietary requirements.” And in time Wendell Willkie might have become the 33rd president.

But “vulnerable” isn’t one of those ten-dollar words. It’s not overly fancy or formal or evasive. It’s certainly not obscure; any 10-year-old reader of Superman comics has encountered the word and knows perfectly well what it means (at least where Kryptonite is involved). So why do I have a problem with “vulnerable”? Because, apart from being used too often, it often dangles off the page as an incomplete thought. Vulnerable to what? Vulnerable when? or how? It is so easy to toss off expressions like “vulnerable youth” or “vulnerable families” or “vulnerable organizations” that people don’t notice that they’ve left off the most important piece of information: What’s the threat?

Now, this isn’t always a problem. If you’re an environmental group raising an alarm about rising sea levels, “vulnerable areas” is a perfectly clear, complete idea. These are low-lying places that are vulnerable to rising water. No chance of missing the point there. If you’re a youth group worried about neighborhoods with lots of gangs and crime, “vulnerable kids” is hardly a mysterious notion. The kids are vulnerable to becoming victims or participants in gang violence and other crime.

But when the threat isn’t already clearly defined, “vulnerable” does become an evasive word, or at least a half-empty vessel. A reader recently sent in an especially appalling sentence — which also cries out for separate notes on the words “implement” and “outcome” (q.v.) — but it perfectly illustrates the problem with “vulnerable”:

“We implemented a survey to collect research on best practices … so the school district could implement its findings into its most vulnerable sites in order to improve outcomes for young males.”

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