I find myself constantly trying to talk about laws, rules, regulations, etc that I find to be bad for or overly punitive towards poor people, but I can't think of a word to describe it. For instance, if you owe even a small amount in state taxes in my state they don't allow you to renew your license nor car registration. This could cause you to lose your job if you drive to (or for) work, and you are no longer able to make money to be able to pay said tax bill (or ANY bills, for that matter). It goes downhill from there.

I could possibly say the same for bank overdraft fees.

Another example: my state has an e-bike rebate with higher incentives for low-income people but forces you to buy locally (even if it's a billion $ big box store like Walmart). Even though you can get better & cheaper e-bikes purchasing direct from manufacturer online, and they STILL get their sales tax, lol. This may stop many low-income people from actually utilizing the rebate due to the much higher local costs and/or limited local availability. I'd call this requirement ______. I've thought of the word "regressive", but that's not quite right as it seems to pertain more to actual tax law specifically. Is there a word, or even a phrase, to describe this? Thanks in advance!

  • 1
    Consider "Socially unjust" or "socially inequitable".
    – Graffito
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 9:32
  • 1
    Metaphorically, you describe a tax on poverty. Commented May 10, 2023 at 17:21
  • Did you consider "Draconian" ? We could attach "Anti-Poor" to high-light what you want. I Suggest "the Draconian Anti-Poor laws have made the rich richer" !
    – Prem
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 15:42

4 Answers 4


Political activists, economists, etc. often refer to official measures (policies, laws, etc. - especially those concerned with tax collection) that adversely affect poor or otherwise disadvantaged people as regressive...

What Is a Regressive Tax? (investopedia.com)
A regressive tax is a tax applied uniformly, taking a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from middle- and high-income earners. It is in opposition to a progressive tax, which takes a larger percentage from high-income earners. With a regressive tax, the tax burden decreases as income rises.

  • A policy may be called regressive if it leads to a reversal to an earlier (presumably worse) state of affairs. That is a very different use of the word from its use in regressive taxation, which represents the relationship between the tax rates and whatever the taxes are based on. Whether taxation is regressive or progressive is a matter of how it works at the given time and has nothing to do with changes relative to some other time; most other uses of regressive concern changes in time.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 15:13
  • 1
    That's not a distinction I make. To me, all "regressive" government policies and tax regimes share the common property of disproportionately negative effects on vulnerable or disadvantaged sub-populations within society (there's no special case for tax policies; that's just the most easily-identified one). Policies that lead to a reversal to an earlier (presumably worse) state of affairs are reactionary policies - whether or not they're regressive. Commented May 11, 2023 at 9:14
  • 1
    ...chatgpt says Examples of regressive policies include regressive taxation systems, where the burden falls heavier on low-income individuals, or policies that limit access to resources or opportunities for marginalized communities. Commented May 11, 2023 at 9:17
  • Introducing regressive income tax would certainly be a regressive policy, buy being in favour of progressive income tax, as currently exists throughout the Western world, does not make one politically progressive.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 16:10
  • 1
    I came here to provide the answer of "regressive" as well. For example, I have heard state-run lotteries being called a type of "regressive taxation."
    – zunojeef
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 12:42

How about "legislative bias towards the more financially fortunate."

  • Or "legislative bias against the impoverished"...but neither is an established phrase. Commented May 10, 2023 at 9:45
  • @KillingTime: Let's start the process then and establish it.
    – Ricky
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 10:37

A phrase that is used quite widely is discrimination against the poor.

An example from the US Department of Justice ... Office of Justice Programms:

Bail and its discrimination against the poor ... [Journal Valparaiso University Law Review Volume: 9 Issue: 1 Dated: (FALL 1974) Pages: 167-191]


One area of the criminal process that still discriminates against the poor is the money-based bail system ...

Note the corresponding clause discriminate against the poor.

Another of the many examples to be found on the internet:

A research project by the University of Johannesburg has found that the Covid-19 vaccination programme discriminates against the poor.... The way the Covid-19 vaccination programme for the elderly is administrated in South Africa discriminates against the impoverished.

This formed part of the findings by the University of Johannesburg's Social Change unit, which led a research project in Protea South, Johannesburg.

Discussing the findings during a webinar on Thursday, Professor Kate Alexander, the South African Research Chair in Social Change at the university, said the vaccination system in its current form disadvantages poor people and should be addressed immediately.

[Alex Mitchley; News24]

The paraphrase disadvantages poor people is also used here.


Here are some external sources that support to notion of "regressive" as meaning "having a backwards or detrimental effect on progress and equality." The term "regressive" is often used in the context of taxation policy but is also applicable to gender equality and other social issues as well.

Working Paper from Boston University Global Development and Environment Institute, "Progressive and Regressive Taxation in the United States: Who’s Really Paying (and Not Paying) their Fair Share?"


A regressive tax system is one where the proportion of income paid in taxes tends to decrease as one’s income increases.

Article on Climate Change and Global Inequality from the United Nations Development Programme


And while fossil fuel subsidies are regressive – and therefore constitute an unequalizing tool, they also represent a significant share of the incomes of the poor that otherwise would be paid for energy consumption.

Article from the World Bank, "Is Tobacco Taxation Regressive? Evidence on Public Health, Domestic Resource Mobilization, and Equity Improvements" (includes links to PDF and text versions of the article)


Another often-cited concern among policy makers is that tobacco taxes are regressive, as they disproportionately burden poorer smokers, who spend a larger portion of their incomes on tobacco products, relative to wealthier consumers.

Entry from World Bank Blogs, "Helping families cope with price shocks—without subsidies"


However, subsidies are undesirable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they are regressive—that is, they benefit richer families more than poorer families, and they are highly expensive.

Article from the World Bank Open Knowledge Repository, "Measuring Equity in Health Care Financing : Reflections on (and Alternatives to) the World Health Organization's Fairness of Financing Index"


[P]olicymakers who may be strongly averse to regressive payments (which worsen income distribution) may in the name of fairness be quite receptive to progressive payments (requiring that the better-off, who may be willing to spend proportionately more on health care, are required to pay proportionately more).

Article from the Center for American Progress, "Authoritarian Regimes Have More Progressive Abortion Policies Than Some U.S. States"


Americans in states with regressive anti-abortion laws now have fewer human rights protections than those in countries criticized for their records on women’s rights.

Article from Morgan Samuels Company, "Addressing the Regressive Impacts of the Pandemic on Gender Equality"


[I]t has become apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a regressive effect on gender equality. Decades of improvement may be lost, as progress stalls and women find their place in the work force more at risk. In early 2020, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take 100 years to close the global gender gap, but it is expected to take even longer now with the setbacks from the pandemic.

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