Sunday, January 29, 2012

Overseer of the Poor

Maybe someone at the San Francisco Chronicle has a sense of historical irony. Or maybe bad old phrasing reappears naturally when the bad old days come creeping back. Unfortunately I'm betting on the latter to explain a dismally resonant word choice in Friday's Chron and Examiner.

The Chron report is trumpeting a scoop so it probably appeared first and set the tone. Here's the header:
"Dufty will oversee homeless"
Here's the headline on the Ex version:
"Mayor hires Bevan Dufty – former campaign opponent – to oversee homeless"
Here's the lede in the Chron:
"Mayor Ed Lee has hired former mayoral candidate and Supervisor Bevan Dufty to oversee San Francisco's homeless policy efforts and some housing issues, sources told The Chronicle Thursday."
And, slightly worse, in the Ex:
"The City’s seemingly endless homeless issue will come closer to an end, Mayor Ed Lee said Friday as he announced the appointment of former Supervisor Bevan Dufty to a new position overseeing poverty in San Francisco."
"Overseer," huh? Quite a history to that term.

I come from a part of Western Massachusetts where each town had "Overseers of the Poor" to run social services. Their terminology and methods were adapted from the old English model. Early poor relief in many towns entailed "pauper auctions", in which unsupported people were handed off, case by case, to whichever farmer would accept the smallest annual stipend for each one's support. The paupers were then expected to labor for either the farmer or the town depending on the system -- so it was maybe not exactly slavery, but bad enough. In the nineteenth century our town had a Poor Farm, a mixed workhouse/asylum where unwanted people were put to work supporting themselves. It was rebuilt after a not-so-crazy resident burned it down in 1882 but I'm not sure how long it lasted after that.

During most of the years when "Overseers of the Poor" served in Massachusetts, an "overseer" in the South was a literal driver of slaves. Yes, the term could also refer to any directorial kind of person, as with Harvard's still-existing "Board of Overseers." Still, not good connotations.

A look around online finds that some people are still well aware of these usages of "Overseer." For example, there's a 2001 book by John Gilliom, a Midwestern political science professor, titled Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy. It seems to be a case study of the surveillance state as exemplified, nastily, by the Ohio welfare system. Which makes the title a fine mordant use of the old phrase.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid Mr. Dufty's new "overseer" status will be a non-ironic return to the old function of "overseeing poverty" without expecting or helping poor people to become anything else but poor. Despite pro-forma promises of change, it's a status-quo kind of appointment. Before serving as a San Francisco county supervisor, Dufty was the homelessness fixer for Mayor Willie Brown. And here, in Dufty's recent campaign site, are some of the approaches we can expect. Some good ideas in there, like the social worker at SF Public Library, but a lot of punitive poverty-as-pathology and poverty-as-nuisance stuff too.

By the way, I think the choice of "oversee" is the Chronicle's fault. The press release from the Mayor's office doesn't use it.

And as usual I wish these papers wouldn't treat "homeless" as a non-count noun, like "sheep" or "rabble", which it properly isn't. "Homeless" is an adjective describing the fully reversible condition of lacking dependable housing. Why is that so difficult to remember?

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