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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

(the) one percent

(2010’s | activese | “plutocrats,” “the super-rich,” “moneyed interests,” “robber barons”)

Unlike “truly needy,” a term beloved of right-wingers, “the one per cent” has been a resolutely left-wing concept throughout its short life. Which means: stay alert! because it’s ripe for co-opting. I picture a room full of public-relations geniuses working non-stop to figure out ways to take the subversive sting out of this phrase, to neutralize its compact indictment of the people for whose benefit the laws are written and the books are cooked. Or, as Occupy Wall Street’s web site defines it, “the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”

Like “truly needy,” most people don’t bother to define this term, although it has a little more claim to precision. Barron’s blog Penta defines the one percent thus: “they have median annual household income of $750,000, median assets of $7.5 million, and there are 1.2 million of them across the country.” The people at the bottom of that bracket don’t write the rules, although they probably find ways to benefit from them. The real rulers occupy in turn a very small sub-group of the one percent.

Almost fifty years ago, Ferdinand Lundberg wrote a book called “The Rich and the Super-Rich” (Lyle Stuart, 1968). It is a very long, detailed, heavily footnoted investigation of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S., who Lundberg found were concentrated in a few dozen families. This tiny sub-group of the population had continued to thrive and extend their sway long after the end of the Gilded Age. Some of the names have changed, but the same power structure persists today. Was it ever thus? Yup. Wise plutocrats (Frederick the Great, Kaiser Wilhelm, FDR) throw the rest of the population a bone every now and then and secure their loyalty. When plutocrats tire of being wise and rub the rest of our noses in their wealth and power, they provoke revolutionary fervor, and a few of them finally lose their heads. The revolution spends itself, and the wise plutocrats pick up where they left off. The super-rich believe that they own the government and ought to run it for their benefit, as they always have. The rest of us ninety-nine point niners?

(the) truly needy

(1980’s | governese | “deserving poor”)

A political term par excellence. This phrase leaped into the spotlight in 1981, when Ronald Reagan strode into Washington, and phrases like “safety net” and “truly needy” filled the air. It was invariably used in the context of welfare reform, specifically the process of eliminating fraud and reserving government aid for those who had an unquestionable claim to it. Reagan’s opponents seized on the phrase, and for a few years, it was often used ironically, as in this example from a 1986 Richard Cohen column: “At last, the truly needy have surfaced. It is not the hungry, about whom the evidence is only anecdotal. It is the domestic oil industry, which is hurting plenty.” “Truly needy” seems to have rehabilitated itself, or maybe Reagan has lost some of his polarizing power; writers generally seem to use it without irony as of 2012 pretty much in the same ways Reagan and his fellow travelers did. Usage note: this phrase is used as a noun — almost never as an adjective — and preceded by the definite article.

On the surface, this phrase has a fair-minded, even bipartisan sound to it, since only the most extreme libertarians claim the government has no role in helping poor people who don’t have any other source of aid. Those on the left use it to say that government isn’t helping enough people, but the phrase bobs up far more often in right-wing pieties. Here’s a textbook example, from a letter to the editor printed in USA Today (June 26, 2007): “Only free-market forces and competition, with a safety net for the truly needy, are capable of producing affordable health insurance, improving quality and decreasing costs.” And it’s usually tossed in just like that, too; rarely does anyone take the time to define who the truly needy are or explain how we might recognize them. Their existence is assumed (just as prevalent welfare fraud is assumed), but we don’t hear much in the way of precise definitions.

An elderly, disabled widow with no income, no family, living alone, goes to church every Sunday, volunteers at a food pantry — o.k., she’s truly needy. But generally people who use this expression are insinuating that most recipients of government assistance (i.e., poor individuals, not corporations or fat cats) are getting it under false pretenses or don’t really need it. Among right-wingers, “the truly needy” is the answer to the question, “Who is worthy of public assistance?” But those who use the phrase make no secret of their desire to cut social programs to the bare minimum, or beyond. They proclaim the existence of the truly needy as a class but deny the existence of individual examples. With this phrase they can masquerade as humanitarians.

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