Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Myths and Realities (III)

"Americans don’t like to talk about poverty. We don’t like to believe that the wealthiest nation in the world has families without the resources to afford basic necessities, such as decent housing and sufficient food, or basic services, such as medical and dental care and quality child care. But American poverty is a reality."
--National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP)

I discussed this concept in a prior post. So by now it is clear that I view many of the popular views on welfare to be convenient. But, of course, convenience is not necessary a sign that they are wrong. In this case, though, I firmly believe they ARE wrong. Often I see public perceptions are incorrect simply because they oversimplify the truth. This isn't to say that the public is stupid, but to realistically admit that can can't all have a deep and current understanding of a wide range of issues. That task would amount to a full time job in and of itself. Here, though, in the arena of social justice, I see the public perceptions as wrong not because they fail to grasp the "whole" truth, but because they are flat wrong--180 degress off from reality.

There is no question that finding reality here is a bit like trying to hold an egg yoke and I inherently have some bias like everyone else--including every commentator and researcher I quote. And on the other hand there's no question that a soccer mom is a less accurate source for welfare fertility rates than a seemingly respectable empirical study. All this is really an introduction to the third part of the discussion on myths and realities: the nitty gritty.

We have to talk about fertility rates amongst welfare recipients, reasons women on welfare have children, and how the welfare system treats those children. Hand in hand is the public perception of welfare mothers. Who are they? Why are they giving birth? And how does America treat the mothers and the children? There is also the policy side. Which policies do Americans generally believe to be effective? And which policies actually are effective? The same must be discussed regarding social mobilization, employment (even at the bottom, stagnant level), the elderly, the disabled and injured, the length of time one spends on welfare (and why), and onwards. This isn't just welfare but poverty in America. Many significant perceptions are dead wrong. I promise this is the last introduction to much needed specifics.


On a personal note, the postings have been rather sporadic lately, and I thank you for your patience with me. I would like to comment on some feedback that I found disturbing. Some people have commented that this blog is "over their head" and I really want to minimize that feeling as much as I can. Not knowing what the EITC means or how it works makes you nothing short of normal. And that is probably one of the better known terms and concepts discussed in the realm of social justice.

Please feel free to use two methods to ask me and other readers anything at all, no matter how basic:

1) post comments -- so few people post even when many speak with me verbally. This blog allows readers to post in the comment section using your real name and email or anonymously; and

2) feel free to email me directly at: socialjusticeblog@gmail.com (always displayed at the very bottom of the page).

To the extent that the comments are long, boring, dense, etc., these are things I continue to struggle with when trying to handle confusing and complex concepts in a few paragraphs a person may glance at over lunch. All I can say now is that I know it needs work.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Myths and Realities (II)

Later posts will discuss more myths and posit additional realities, for a study on public perception of welfare recipients suggests not only that we are off, but that we are completely off in many of our popular views. In other words, where the public may generally believe that welfare recipients have too many children--and some believe that welfare recipients have more children to get more benefits--the evidence to be discussed later indicates that welfare recipients have less children then the general public, and share the same concerns about pregnancy and additional children as everyone else.

The same appears to be true across the board. And where the occasional stigma may prove true, it should be accompanied in understanding by the true cause. If it were found that welfare recipients were more likely to get divorced then the general public, the finding could lead to a stigma that welfare recipients cared less about maintaining a family structure. That view would help justify the downward mental gaze fixed on a single mother when one thinks that her situation, while unfortunate, was avoidable. But the truth may lie behind a different door. Alternatively, I could propose the possibility that welfare recipients have more stress and less positive outlets than the general public--thereby leading to a higher divorce rate.

So there we have set out some future discussions on stigma where the majority are flat wrong and the minority are misunderstood. I was pretty surprised to find that as well and don't blame skeptical readers. More to come. But first I want to expand on the last post. There, I discussed some of the reasons it is important to look at myths and realities behind welfare and welfare recipients. Here, I want to set forth some reasons why false stigmas are readily perpetuated throughout the public and the government. At first I thought that such a discussion should come at the end--after looking at which views are right and which are wrong--but I came to the conclusion that the utility of such ideas should be on one's mind when considering whether stigmas are true or false.

For the record, references to studies below often come from a well done book called Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America, by Mark Rank. As one commentator points out, the stigma surrounding welfare programs often plays a functional role in rationing scarce resources, recruiting and maintaining a labor force, and preventing "deviant" behavior (Loewenberg 1981).

Someone using the Britain's NHS would understand the way that subtle and not so subtle discomforts can be used to achieve a desired result. If it takes a really long time to get a test done people will be less likely to request the test. If, as I once heard a Harvard MPH professor posture, the waiting rooms are made uncomfortable (hard seats, no reading materials, hot room, etc.) people will be more likely to think twice before seeing a doctor. Thus, stigmas and discomforts surrounding the welfare system help make the experience unpleasant enough so that the system is utilized only by those who need help so badly they are willing to deal with the consequences.

I would also point to similarities in bankruptcy. While the vast majority of debtors are honest people in need of help, the bankruptcy system is stigmatized through emphasizing the few dishonest debtors. This helps make people feel guilty about pursuing a discharge of their financial obligations. It adds a powerful, intangible consequence to filing. Some reports indicate that nearly twice the number of individuals who file bankruptcy would benefit from filing. Why doesn't the other half file? No one knows, but the point here is that a review of the numbers is not enough. One's financial situation may be improved after filing, but the stigmas surrounding bankruptcy surely add an intangible disincentive that keeps some of that 50 percent out of the courts.

To add an even more extreme analogy, consider prison. The idea of incarceration alone is not pleasant. Even the threat of being locked in my apartment with an abundance of food for two years would be enough to serve as a deterrent for me. But when one really considers prison as a deterrent, the thought of assault and rape come to mind above the true, official punishment of confinement. Here, you can see with prison just how unmotivated the government might be to curb resultant consequences. The rumors and realities associated with life in prison just make the thought of being there that much worse--and the deterrent that much more effective.

Thus, the stigmas surrounding welfare help maintain the system as one of last resort, and reinforce the view amongst even its participants that the system should be used--if at all--for the shortest period possible. As another commentator states: "Afraid that handouts will encourage dependency, assistance programs stigmatize those who receive benefits to prevent them from asking for more, and to make it clear to others that there is an emotional price to pay" (Goodban 1985).

A state government could easily justify plastering signs warning against welfare fraud and employing armed guards at welfare offices as a means of ensuring safety and proper use of the system. But in reality, a culture is created that makes welfare recipients anxious and embarressed while applying for benefits. A person may then hesitate to return. In fairness, Mark Rank notes that he observed welfare intake workers to be sensitive to applicants' unease.

Examples of reinforced stigmas abound, but need not be discussed here. The point is simple: the stigmas surrounding welfare, no matter how false, are an integral part of the welfare system as we know it. The stigmas and the policies must be changed together.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Myths and Realities

It has been a bit since my last post. There, I discussed some of the common stigmas attributed to welfare recipients (and often to low-income individuals and families regardless of public assistance). Somewhat ironically, I wrote the last post in reaction to a comment I felt needed further discussion. Yet after the post I have received many comments (though almost none formally through the blog) from people who disagree with me. People either believe that the stereotypes I raised up as myths really were realities, or perhaps simply disagree with my analysis. It has kept me thinking and researching ever since. And thus, the taste of this topic remains and must be chewed on a bit more.

This isn't really a true follow-up post here, for my need to read up on this subject more has been part of the delay and continues. Rather, I thought I might take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of the topic. When it comes to something like hunger, I am well aware of how far I am to the left. I'd be the first to advocate that no American should ever go hungry regardless of his personal decisions. The argument is instantly made more palatable when considering children--for how can we let children go hungry as punishment for their parents' actions? This is no more American than making children pay for parental debts.

Let's go back to the more extreme argument: that an adult capable of earning money chooses not to work. Many (probably most) people would disagree with me and say that if he chooses to sit around all day, his resultant hungry is nobody's problem but his own. If he is ill and absolutely cannot work, then most people would advocate state assistance at least to the level of providing basic food and shelter. And now we are back on topic. For it is a question of cause that brings about a significant difference in attitude towards the problem and solution to this man's hunger. This is described further in the book Lives on the Line: American Families and the Struggle to Make Ends Meet, by Martha Shirk, Neil Bennett and J. Lawrence Aber. As one summary indicates:
The authors describe how public attitudes toward the poor directly affect the way we address the problem of poverty in our country. For example, if Americans believe that causes of poverty are beyond the control of the poor, and that families are actually held back from financial independence because of existing social structures, then we are more likely to address poverty through public policies and programs. If we blame the poor for their circumstances, believing that poverty is rooted in their mistakes or character flaws, then we are more likely to dismiss their plight entirely.

In addition, I would argue that the plight may not be dismissed entirely but the reaction changes. If we believe that welfare recipients are predisposed to cheat, lie and steal, we would create a system with many of the attributes seen today--welfare offices filled with warnings regarding welfare fraud, frequent walk-throughs in waiting rooms by armed security officers, news stories focused on welfare abuse, ubiquitious reports of case workers treating welfare recipients with cold suspicion, and official forms and policies focused on preventing abuse. Here we see a mentality that is more troubled by one ineligible person receiving benefits than by one eligible person not receiving benefits.

Thus, for most people, why a person is poor, hungry or homeless matters a great deal. And to me, it matters in the sense that policies are created based on such views. Therefore, the policies can only be effectively adjusted if the attitudes underlying the policy choices are reconsidered. Turning the light on in the closet may effectively keep a child feeling safe from monsters, but if the monsters are not the real reason the child can't sleep at night, getting a brighter light and cracking the door open wider provides a no more effective solution. All you're doing is wasting energy and making yourself feel better because you tried.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lazy, dishonest, and immoral

A comment on my recent post on the immigrant boycott oddly enough shifted directions to discuss welfare recipients. The comment particularly bothered me because it hit directly on a few common (mis)perceptions surrounding welfare recipients—namely that they are lazy and dishonest. I responded to the comment before but want to expand on it slightly here. (And just to be clear before I begin, I’m using the word “welfare” really to refer to all social services related to welfare: WIC, EITC, food stamps, disability benefits, etc.)

One unfortunately common belief surrounding welfare recipients is that they are lazy. That is to say that they are “disposed to idleness” to steal a dictionary definition. The difference between being on welfare and not, under such a belief, is work-ethic and a desire to be independent rather than dependent. Another belief equally unfortunate is a sense that welfare recipients are dishonest. This belief stems somewhat from the first in that a person who is already trying to get as much as he can for as little work as possible might not hesitate to cheat the system. Indeed, the belief is based on the fundamental sense that the system is already being cheated by the welfare recipient for he has not lived up to his end of the bargain in society—that all able-bodies work and contribute. Thus, why should we not worry that a welfare recipient will list 4 children when she only has 2, or will under-represent income to stay eligible for food stamps? Taken to an even more dramatic level, it could be said that such individuals are immoral as they lack fundamental values (a sense of right from wrong).

I have commented before that these theories are also utilized without hesitation because they make sense to us. It simply makes sense that lazy people should be poorer than harder working people. The same could be said with honest versus dishonest—short term gains aside, the logic would provide that you eventually get what’s coming to you. And further, we often define who we are by who we are not. Welfare recipients don’t just have less in their bank account, they are different people with a different moral compass and a different sense of values. Or so the argument and logic goes….

If you haven’t gathered already, I strongly disagree with this logic for reasons not the least of which includes its simplicity. Poverty is an extremely complex problem. If it wasn’t, we probably wouldn’t have millions of people in America in 2006 unsure when they will eat again. We wouldn’t need massive lobbying campaigns to get wages a level where a man doesn’t have to spend half a day’s pay to take his wife to the movies. Sometimes complex problems have simple explanations. I don’t believe poverty is one of them.

But forget what I believe. An article I previously discussed from the Texas Psychologist states that:
[P]erceptions of the poor tend to reflect attitudes and stereotypes that attribute poverty to personal failings rather than socioeconomic structures or systems.... Stereotyped beliefs about low-income people are widespread and serve to maintain negative attitudes and attributions such that there is a “distancing from the poor” by those in the middle and upper classes.... Reasons for these findings have been attributed to people having a high just world belief--a belief that the world is a just place, and that people get what they deserve.... Others have suggested Americans favor the use of individualistic/internal attributions to explain poverty because it implies an element of individual control.

I want to just add one point before I close: the media. Normal, honest people do not make good news stories. As author Joel Best states in More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues:
Examples compel when they have emotional power, when they frighten or disturb us. But atypical examples usually distort our understanding of a social problem; when we concentrate on the dramatic exception, we tend to overlook the more common, more typical--but more mundane--cases.

Much more exciting is the individual arrested for committing welfare fraud, or the woman who is caught after years of collecting food stamps for a long-diseased husband. But this is the closest most upper-class people get to the welfare office and many social services in general, and the perfect prey for the media. I would like to say that empirical evidence strongly supports my belief that welfare fraud is ridiculously exaggerated, but I cannot. The numbers are all over the place on this subject.

The whole point of this post is to emphasize the need for educated people to look deeper.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Poverty and Mental Health

Causation and correlation are often confused, and no less so in the arena of social justice. Why, for instance, is a single black or hispanic mother 40 percent likely to be poor? This is a very complicated question, and answering it requires reviewing many factors that may simply be related or may actually contribute to the poverty.

As the Texas Psychologist recently pointed out the Winter 2006 edition, "persons with lower socioeconomic status (SES) have consistently been found to have higher rates of psychiatric disorders...." The magazine points out two competing explanations for the above observation: (1) "stressors involved in being poor are believed to result in increased levels of mental disorders," or (2) "those with mental illnesses lose status and move to the poorest and lowest levels of society because they are unable to function effectively within higher levels and because of the stigma associated with mental illness."

Yet looking at children, as the magazine points out, indicates that "children in households at or below poverty level had a higher proportion of mental and emotional disabilities than any other socioeconomic group...." Thus, while the mental and emotional disabilities will adversely affect their lives to varying degrees as they age, the state of affairs for poor children supports a view that poverty causes or increases mental and emotional disabilities.

I also want to at least touch upon the significance of higher rates of psychiatric disorders on the poor. For one, this state of affairs only further perpetuates the stigma American society places on the poor. With the added stigma of mental illnes, the poor become not just resented and looked down upon, but also something to fear for they are more likely to be unstable and unpredictable. Of course, this only leads to further social segregation. And for another, high rates of psychiatric disorders makes it more likely that the poor will stay poor and become even poorer. Reports have indicated that psychiatric disorders add to the already heavy burden of poverty, thus leading to more lost work days, limitations on daily activities, and lost opportunities and benefits within our otherwise prosperous society.

Indeed, social mobility can only be stagnated by psychiatric disorders. The same is not necessarily true for the wealthy. Money buys proper care and helps ensure that problems can be isolated--never mixed with additional stressors like homelessness, food insecurity, etc. The American Psychological Association seems increasingly aware of the dangers associated with the improperly treated disorders amongst the poor. Unfortunately, little is understood or advocated outside of the professionals.

Monday, May 01, 2006


I have to share my "favorite" quote with you on today's boycott. Retired Army colonel Jack Culberson said, at a rally in Pensacola, Florida:
You should send all of the 13 million aliens home, then you take all of the welfare recipients who are taking a free check and make them do those jobs. It's as simple as that.

I have to thank Mr. Culberson for epitomising American ignorance regarding immigrant workers and welfare recipients. Mr. Culberson apparently advocates two points: 1) send illegal immigrants back to their country of origin, and 2) make welfare recipients do the jobs of the immigrants.

All that I want to emphasize here is how common the impulse is to join Mr. Culberson in pointing the finger at those who are least to blame. Enough with the stick often used to point and then punish. We need to rethink how to use the carrot. Make it more appealing for an employer to hire a low-income American over an illegal immigrant and there's little doubt who he'd pick. Similarly, the welfare recipient is often ready and able to work if doing so makes economic sense. Sure, we could cut all state assistance, but that is not American. At least a basic level of social services must be provided, and therefore the option of cut them entirely is unrealistic. Already, welfare recipients face an unbelievably annoying, frustrating and dignity evaporating process dealing with multiple agencies practically designed to make their lives even more difficult. The only alternative then is to make working more appealing.

After thinking about it a moment, I like Mr. Culberson's effort (so he gets an "A" in something). Maybe he and others who believe so strongly that immigrants should not be here illegally and welfare recipients should get off the couch, can think of productive, realistic solutions. I'll give him a start: how do you get a greyhound to race around a track? It's not by hitting it on the ass with a stick. That would just get him to run. We he goes from there nobody could know.
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