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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: government assistance

compassion fatigue

(1980’s | journalese?)

One way to sum up compassion fatigue is “from empathy to apathy.” That is, it results from exerting so much effort to care for others that one gets worn out and no longer has strength or patience to help. Some writers, in fact, prefer “empathy fatigue.” Another way is to think of it as a special case of burnout, although some would distinguish the two. And another: a stress disorder that you get from other people’s traumas rather than your own; “secondary traumatic stress” is another synonym.

If you Google “compassion fatigue,” you will get the impression that it is the sole province of health care workers — or more generally those whose job it is to help others — and properly considered at an individual level. That is, an exhausted and overworked nurse or caregiver is afflicted with it, and the patients bear the consequences. Originally, however, compassion fatigue occurred on a national level. The phrase appears first in LexisNexis in December 1980, thanks to Senator Alan Simpson, who was talking about allowing beleaguered foreigners to resettle in the U.S. Americans did not want to accommodate them, according to Simpson, because of “compassion fatigue.” As late as 2000, that was the primary connotation when the phrase occurred in the press. It is true that you don’t get national compassion fatigue without lots and lots of individuals with compassion fatigue. Yet the scale of the phenomenon is clearly different. In the first instance, you’re talking about, at most, direct effects on a few dozen people. In the second, it’s in the millions.

Senator Simpson may have given the phrase its final push into prominence, but it certainly predates his use of it. There is some on-line evidence that Norman Cousins, editor and leading light of the Saturday Review, invented the expression in the context of foreign aid. In medicine and psychology, Carla Joinson (1992) and C.R. Figley (1995) are often credited with steering the phrase into new fields. (Not only did Figley help popularize the term, he seems to have originated the idea of understanding it as a stress disorder.)

The treatment for personal compassion fatigue relies on two concepts that Lex Maniac has covered, self-care and me time. In order to refresh your empathy, it is necessary to take a break, meet your own needs, and do things because you want to do them, not because someone else is making you. Experts often advise that compassion fatigue results from an inadequate self-care regimen (yes, regimen), and me time is just one component of self-care. There is no cure for mass compassion fatigue, but when times are flush and we need lots of imported workers to keep things going, Americans may get more liberal about immigration.

I don’t think it’s gotten there yet, but “fatigue” is a suffix ripe for spreading. “Donor fatigue” is one example; it widens the field by linking fatigue with persons rather than qualities. Let’s widen it some more. Q. “Why were you late to the office?” A. “Commuting fatigue.” (A much larger problem now than a couple of years ago, or maybe it’s just more openly discussed.) Students might develop exam or term paper fatigue. Most of us have a bad case of politics fatigue these days. You name it, if you’re sick and tired of it, or have used it up, tack on “fatigue” et voilà! a fun new phrase is born.

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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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food insecurity

(2000’s | bureaucratese | “not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” “malnutrition”)

Just as “dysfunctional family” is a classic example of therapese, “food insecurity” is unmistakable bureaucratese. The first use I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by none other than Lester R. Brown, environmental crier in the wilderness for nigh onto fifty years now. But most early examples of the term come from reports by the UN, the World Bank, or other such do-gooder organizations. The adjective version, “food insecure,” pops up for the first time in 1988. In the early years, it was generally used in the context of talking about hunger in Africa, but now it applies readily anywhere.

The earliest uses of “food insecurity” were not generally defined, and it may have had a broader connotation ca. 1980. In 1983, the co-founder of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei, used the term in an address to the Club: “In the past, the concept of food security could never become a cultural value, because food insecurity was then the norm. Only more recently, since it has been shown that enough food could be produced to satisfy all human needs, has food security become an moral and humanitarian issue.” As in Brown’s use of the phrase, “food insecurity” seems to portend problems on a global scale, rather than on local or even national levels. Food insecurity leads to political insecurity and even revolution, not just individual uncertainty about access to sustenance.

By 1990, when U.S. agencies were classifying individuals and families as “food-insecure,” the USDA defined it as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The Associated Press (1999) summarized it as “unable to meet basic food needs at all times.” It’s not quite as bad as hunger, but it’s only one shaky step above that; any reversal of fortune can kick you into a much worse state. It’s closer to “malnutrition” (or “malnourished”), which didn’t mean you were starving, but did mean you were underfed.

“Food insecurity” is a functionary’s attempt at precision, a phrase devised to denote a state that isn’t out-and-out hunger but still something we have to worry about. (If your goal is to eliminate hunger, you have to get rid of food insecurity as well, because a certain number of the food-insecure will become hungry sooner or later.) The proliferation of bureaucratic vocabulary may arise from an honest effort to measure and categorize more precisely, or it may just stem from carelessness and lack of attention. “Food insecurity” is an example of the former, but in everyday use, its sound irritates us. One more clumsy euphemism from the government stock and store, which apparently is as rich as Fort Knox.

food pantry

(1980’s | “soup kitchen,” “food bank”)

A “food pantry” is not really the same thing as a “soup kitchen” or a “food bank.” They do not generally serve hot meals, as a soup kitchen does, and unlike a food bank, they operate at the retail level rather than the wholesale. A food pantry distributes donated supplies to individuals or families. It’s a little like going to the grocery store, except you don’t have to pay and the selection is nowhere near as good. At least nowadays, they are almost always run by private groups: often houses of worship, sometimes unions or community organizations. But nothing prevents the government from running them, as it might maintain homeless shelters.

“Food pantry” used in this sense hardly shows up before the late 1970’s in Google Books; by the mid-1980’s it’s fairly common. Before that it was a mildly redundant way to say “pantry,” mostly used literally. “Pantry” has always struck me as a slightly odd word, but never until I sat down to write this entry did I look up its origin. The word has existed in English since 1300 or so, and it comes from the Old French word for “bread (storage) room.” All this talk of bread reminds me of another fun old word for a place where food is stored, “buttery,” which had nothing to do with butter. The buttery was the storeroom for butts, that is, casks or barrels.

LexisNexis spits out a spate of articles about food pantries’ efforts to alleviate hunger in the early 1980’s. I had trouble thinking of a precise pre-1980 equivalent for this expression, probably because there wasn’t one. (I remember schoolwide canned goods drives in the 1970’s, and my parents delivered food packages to shut-ins.) Before 1980, there were plenty of hungry people who needed help, but they got it in ways that didn’t require them to go to food pantries. If you got food stamps, you went to the store and stocked up. If you subscribed to Meals on Wheels, the food came to you. But a number of trends came together in 1981: unemployment went up as Paul Volcker’s Fed sharply restricted the money supply. That brought down inflation, but it drove up misery. The homeless population increased sharply — partly because a lot of people had recently been released from mental institutions — and started to include many more women and children. And the Reagan administration worked to cut federal aid to the needy, so food stamps were harder to get and bought less. (Reagan and his men also made it respectable to drag out the old canard that a lot of people getting government aid didn’t deserve it because they were lazy. The sneers directed at the poor went right along with tax policies that made life easier for a few at the top and harder for everyone below them, a trend that has continued unabated to this day.) Add it all together, and you had a much larger number of people in need at the very moment government assistance was shrinking. Concerned citizens did what they could to pick up the slack, but a shaky network of small groups dependent on a few active members and local donations lacks the reach and power of a national effort led by the federal government. Reagan succeeded in casting the Great Society into disrepute, but its replacement is much more fragile, much more easily overwhelmed.

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