One Poverty Roll Please, Hold the Mayo!

October 25, 2011

Today’s New York Times has a story on the disproportionate increase in income poverty among people living in the suburbs. Over the last 10 years, the number of people with incomes below the austere U.S. poverty line ($22,350 for a family of four) has increased by 53 percent in the suburbs, compared with a 26 percent increase in cities.

While the story was good, I was struck by a puzzling reference to “the poverty roll”, which the story says has increased by 5 million in the suburbs. Searching for “poverty roll(s)” in NYT stories since 1851, I found about a dozen more stories and references that use the term, just about all of them from the 1990s and 2000s. This strange use of “roll” seems to be limited to poverty; there are no NYT stories referencing the growth in the “billionaire rolls” or the “Latino rolls” or noting the decline in the “middle-class rolls.” 

What is a “poverty roll” exactly? The NYT uses it to mean “people with incomes below the poverty line.” But this is very different from the actual definition of “roll” that seems most relevant here: “an official list or register of names.” Thankfully, the United States doesn’t keep any such list or register of the names of people living below the poverty line. A kind of poverty roll, known as a “Parochial List” — a list of “paupers” receiving relief from their local parish and of workhouse inmates — was kept under the English poor laws in the 18th and 19th century, so perhaps the NYT wants to evoke those happy times of progress for the working class.

So, the NYT is abusing the English langauge. Should we care? In this case, I think we should. One of the important progressive achievements of the 20th century was the “depauperization of poverty.” This effort, as historian Alice O’Connor explains in Poverty Knowledge (p. 18): “recast public understanding of poverty by emphasizing its roots in unemployment, low wages, labor exploitation, political disenfranchisement, and more generally in the social disruptions association with large-scale urbanization and industrial capitalism.” Modern statistical approaches to measuring poverty — which do away with the sorts of moral categorization that prevailed in earlier times — are a product of this movement. 

Terms like “poverty rolls” effectively repauperize poverty in a way that isn’t helpful to progressive efforts to reduce it.  When people read a reference like “on the poverty roll,” what most of them actually hear is something like “on the dole.” Referring to the one-in-seven Americans who have extremely low incomes as being on some sort of imaginary “roll” dehumanizes them, and implies that they are a kind of passive and inert mass.  The Times would never use the term for other groups, they shouldn’t use it to describe people with low incomes.

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