A blog article by Bonniejean Alford (Educator, Activist, World Citizen)
About a week or so ago I heard a headline on the television news that interested me about deceased Americans receiving stimulus checks. It got me thinking about the subject, so I did a bit of research.
What I found on several blog sites left myself with a feeling of distaste.
There were several people bad-mouthing welfare recipients and stereotyping them heavily as drug users and the like. One person went so far as to comment that if he were a woman he would just get pregnant from some ‘deadbeat’ so that he too could be a drain on the system (various comments posted at http://www.2009stimuluscheck.net and/or http://www.itaxrebate.com).
I further contemplated this issue and realized that the media also portrays welfare recipients in a negative way, as drains on society, drug users, and child abusers. From first hand knowledge, and previous research conducted, I know this to be an inaccurate assessment and I became curious as to why the extreme stereotyping in a society that is supposed to be for the people, by the people, and of the people. Scholar Richard Dyer (2006) points out that stereotypes are a very real phenomenon that speaks to something important in society.
Sadly, they are often agreed upon by the masses, even those to which the stereotype is addressing.
This may in fact lead those being stereotyped to fulfill the roles of said stereotype, which in the case of welfare recipients does in fact mean that some become drug users and child abusers. But far from all fit this category.
Yet, the stereotype remains almost as if absolute.
Well in life, which the media is supposedly trying to represent, albeit at extremes sometimes, people are simply trying to understand the people around them, and stereotyping becomes a useful tool in providing examples of how those outside a person’s circle of life exist and live within the broader picture of the world. Despite being useful, stereotypes are quite a rigid way of viewing the world that exists beyond one’s frame of reference and in classifying ‘normality,’ whatever that is (Dyer 2006).
In Sociology specifically, there is a desire to address the labels assigned to people with neutrality, with no regard for the influence of power structures or issues of (in)equality (Dyer 2006). This, of course is problematic, in that much of what we come to understand about people is rooted very heavily in the very power structures designed to keep people in their place.
And sadly, the reality of the world is simple: there very much is a power differential that exists to ensure that those in power stay in power and those who lack it continue to be without it, even if they by chance come within the sights of having said power. Further, there are extremes of powerlessness that exist, pushing those people further to the fringe of society.
With regard to recipients of welfare, that is exactly what is happening. Welfare is designed to help people who have faced a hardship of some sort work their way back out of the hardship. Despite what the media and those bloggers had to say, most welfare programs have strict guidelines, time tables, and expectations. This may include attending job training, school, or some other specifics. Some programs even require documentation of bettering one’s life and/or random drug testing, though I suspect the drug testing is more a recent trend influenced by the media portrayal and (mis)understanding by society members regarding recipients of welfare, thus a reciprocal effect in practice as C. Wright Mills (1959) would say.
Truthfully, I think that the problem with welfare recipients is most rooted in capitalism, or more specifically, the struggle against socialism. In society today, helping fellow citizens is considered a great thing, but only so long as it doesn’t impact the bottom line, which it ultimately does since the money has to come from somewhere. In the end, the power doesn’t lie in the hands of people based on anything more than who has the most money, even if they all tend to look the same.
Ultimately, stereotyping is merely a symptom of a greater problem, that age old struggle between the haves and the have nots.
Dyer, Richard. 2006. “Stereotyping.” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, editors Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, pp. 353-365. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959 (200o). The Sociological Imagination, 40th Anniversary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.