Depicting Need for Assistance as Moral Failing; Benefits Scroungers, Welfare, and the Media

With the economic downturn in the United States has come a dramatic increase in the number of people relying on or needing government assistance to survive. This has meant growing pressure on a shrinking safety net being attacked with cuts from the federal government on down. Congress has made some benefits extensions in the interest of preventing total social collapse, but not enough, and it appears likely that many of these are going to be reversed in the coming year.

There’s a long history in this country of depicting welfare recipients in a very specific way; as worthless, feckless, and unwilling to pursue opportunities. This has been spearheaded by conservatives who want members of the public to believe that their hard-earned tax dollars are being wasted on these dregs of society; drug-addled, undereducated, lazy people who just need to bootstrap their way to success. They scaremonger with tactics like suggesting that people should be compelled to take drug tests before accessing welfare payments. This messaging is what ensures continued support for politicians who oppose social programmes in the United States, because their constituents believe that they are fighting for more efficient, effective, and appropriate government spending.

Conservative politicians argue that unemployed people don’t need government support because they became unemployed through being lazy and unproductive. They simply need to get it together and get jobs; and in those rare instances where unemployment is the not the fault of the individual, that person should go to a charity for help. This is what churches and other community organizations are for, apparently, is to support those who have encountered setbacks.

This neglects, of course, the fact that there is an entire system in the United States structured around making people fail, by putting them in positions where they cannot claw their way to success no matter how much they believe in boostrapping. As politicians oppose the expansion of the safety net, they doom their own constituents to increasingly precarious lives, and have a negative impact on the possibility for economic recovery. It’s extremely difficult for people to be resourceful and innovative when they are more worried about the source of their next meal and how to pay the rent than they are about where to get advanced education or technical training, after all.

Usually the media is complicit in these narratives. It supports the stories presented by conservatives and depicts welfare recipients and other people using government benefits as slackers, scroungers, and dead weight on society. The media is very fond of finding those exceptional stories about people getting big benefits, and using them to illustrate that the whole system may be broken if a random person somewhere accidentally got inappropriately large cheques. The media finds people for the public to judge, like fat folks on food stamps or women with lots of children, and uses these narratives to directly support the conservative agenda of hacking apart social benefits.

Media sources seem to be shifting, though, when it comes to talking both about government benefits and about politicians. Some media sources definitely are perpetuating rhetoric about welfare queens and all the rest, suggesting that such programmes are a waste of time and that the people who use them just need to get aggressive about turning their lives around them. Others, however, are pointing out that unemployment is, more and more, a happenstance. Something that can occur to anyone. Not a moral failing at all, but a social one.

And they’re showing that politicians are reaping some pretty big benefits of their own, and that there may be more efficient and appropriate ways to spend that money. It’s nice to see the media turning the tables, there.

The media point to the shrinking economy, the struggle to keep jobs in the US, the problems faced by employers. And they profile ‘model employees’ who lost their jobs anyway when their companies went under or couldn’t keep up staffing levels. They profile people who sought out higher education and can’t use their degrees, as well as students struggling with debt so significant that they have a difficult time establishing a social foothold. These stories are very different from the classic narrative of ‘lazy’ unemployed people who simply aren’t worth social support. Instead, the media are showing people who have a chance at getting ahead if offered a hand up.

Sadly some of these narratives enforce norms and rhetoric about the ‘deserving‘ poor, of course, but I think it’s a significant step to take, to go from assuming that all people on welfare are lazy and don’t deserve it to admitting that some people on welfare are actually using the programme for precisely its intended purpose. The next step, to discussing the fact that all people deserve social support and a chance to get ahead, is going to take more time, but this is a really critical first step, and it’s one conservatives clearly deeply fear, given how much they’ve ramped up their rhetoric of late. The idea that the mainstream media might not be in lockstep with their ideas anymore is deeply upsetting to them.

After all, these stories about foreclosures and lost jobs that happened to good people who did all the right things would seem to suggest that there is something deeply wrong with US society. Something that cannot be fixed by judging people whose lives aren’t working out, or by insisting that social benefits programmes should go away and don’t do any good because they’re wasted on undeserving people. And that might suggest that conservatives are actually not thinking in the best interests of the people, their constituents, the people who vote for them but who are also learning that they are only a thin line away from losing everything.