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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

welfare check

(2000’s | bureaucratese?)

An expression that has changed meaning quite thoroughly. While the older meaning, familiar in my youth, had to do with government assistance to needy individuals, the newer one has to do with government assistance to individuals who are in trouble, or might be. A less common but significant variant is “wellness check.” The news has been rife with it lately on account of young comedian Pete Davidson, who proved to be o.k. when NYPD visited his apartment after he posted a “disturbing Instagram message,” as good a cry for help as any in these tiring times. Welfare checks are normally made by the police at the request of someone — normally a relative or caregiver — who is concerned about a third party. I can’t think of an older expression, though I suppose police officers and social workers have done this sort of thing for a long time, but if there was a word for it, official or otherwise, I don’t know what it was. Something with “visit” in it, most likely.

There are a couple of obvious reasons that “welfare check” is no longer needed to refer to government payments to the poor. One is that “welfare” is rarely used in official circles to denote that kind of assistance, though regular people still use the word. Another is that it’s been at least two decades since such payments were distributed in check form, making room for an entirely different sense of “check.” The change took place after 2000 — within ten years of Clinton’s circumscribing and restructuring of welfare as we knew it — although I found a few instances in the late nineties where the more recent meaning turned up. The odd thing about the two meanings of this phrase is that when either is used, the other is not acknowledged; even when the cops make a welfare check on a welfare recipient — which happens fairly often — no one seems to notice the coincidence. A welfare check is a welfare check, and never the twain shall meet.

It’s a three-headed transaction, so it requires three sets of verbs. There’s the people who set up the welfare check (request, call for), there’s the people who carry it out (conduct, do, make, perform), and there’s the people whose homes are visited (receive). The story is rarely told from the point of view of the last, much more often from those of the first two. That presumably is why that group doesn’t get as many verbs; we might suggest others: undergo, suffer, endure. If the result is the discovery of a corpse, no such verb is required, of course. When the official visit turns up nothing wrong — no crime, no corpses, just somebody who was too busy to text his mom for a couple of days — then there’s no story, and no one is interested in the victim of the welfare check.

There’s something a little Kafkaesque about it. You’re shoved into the system by someone who (presumably) wishes you well, but who does sic the cops on you. The victim has no say in the matter, and once you’re in a police database you can’t get out, or at least can’t be sure you’re out. When we remember Kafka’s dangerously plausible stories of impenetrable and maleficent bureaucracy, into which one wanders innocently and whose clutches cannot be escaped, the welfare check doesn’t seem quite so benign. I don’t mean to suggest that we should reject welfare checks entirely on libertarian grounds — they are certainly useful for helping law-abiding senior citizens and their families, for example — but I would think long and hard before calling one in on anyone I knew.

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