It’s Time to Smash the Stigma Surrounding Welfare Recipients

Illustration by Yu Lam Yau

By Abhay Venkitaraman
Published on December 24th, 2021

Erroll Graham was a 57-year old grandfather living in the UK. As someone who was suffering from a mental disability, he relied on out-of-work and housing benefits to make ends meet.

But one day, his benefits were cut off. Errol’s only major source of monetary support was brought to an abrupt end after he failed to attend a “work capability assessment”: a procedure which determines a welfare recipient’s ability to work, and that is often derided as being deeply “arbitrary and cruel”.

Eight months later, when bailiffs entered his apartment, they found that his gas and electricity supply had all but disappeared. Two tins of expired fish was the only food that was left in his kitchen cupboard. And right before them, was Errol’s corpse. It weighed just 28.5 kilograms.

He had starved to death. (Butler)

Errol’s story is a brutal reminder that all too often, safety nets that exist to protect the poor and vulnerable treat them with callous disregard, lodging them in situations where they must seek out every avenue to fend off the inhumanity of poverty.

Much of this cut-throat approach can be attributed to welfare stigma: derogatory beliefs about welfare recipients that permeate society.

This stigma typically manifests in three ways. There’s personal stigma: feelings of shame on the part of those that claim welfare benefits. Social stigma involves the perceived loss of social status that results from claiming benefits. Finally, institutional stigma results when this humiliation is accentuated by interactions with the benefits system (Chan et al. 2) (Bell 10).

This stigma gives impetus to a toxic “tough on benefits” attitude in political discourse (Beattie), encouraging politicians to craft policies that make it exceedingly tough for the marginalised to receive state support.

The damage doesn’t end there. Stigma often dissuades the poverty-stricken from seeking benefits in the first place (Butler); a recent Hong Kong-centric survey showed that roughly 70% of the unemployed in the city were “unwilling” to apply for welfare due to fear of stigma (Zheng). Moreover, studies suggest that negative perceptions of welfare recipients diminish their self-worth and leave them more vulnerable to mental health issues like clinical depression (Pak Abstract).

Not only does this stigmatisation of welfare recipients represent a significant barrier towards the realisation of an equal, poverty-free society, but it is fundamentally unreasonable. It is laced with blatant hypocrisy. It attributes poverty to personal choice, rather than capitalism’s intrinsic flaws. And its public policy implications are founded upon an idealised analysis of labour markets.

Detractors often invoke the trope of the “undeserving poor”. Since lower-income households tend to reap state benefits whilst contributing little in way of taxes, their presence supposedly represents a “drain” on society; Libertarian commentator John Stossel infamously summed this us with his “makers versus takers” dichotomisation of the American populace (LibertyPen).

However, this worldview is fundamentally a double-standard. After all, politicos like Stossel rarely object when - in other areas of society - the affluent receive an income that is incommensurate to their societal contribution.

When billionaires like Bezos evade tax (Gardner), run roughshod over their workers (Butler), and destroy the environment (Darby), do their actions represent a contribution or a drain on society? When corporate executives engage in self-serving largesse by showering themselves with excessive pay and bonuses that outpace their marginal productivity (Baker et al.), do their actions represent a contribution or a drain on society? When landlords accrue prodigious amounts of rental income as a result of land appreciation that is no feat of their own (Netzer), do their actions represent a contribution of a drain on society?

One hardly has to look far to notice that - in our economy - people taking more than they contribute - what is termed by economists as “rent-seeking behaviour” (Majaski) - is the norm rather than the exception. So why do the likes of Stossel only object to “unearned” income when it’s going to those that need it most? This attitude represents hopeless hypocrisy at best, and classism at worst.

Propagators of this trope also argue that - rather than supposedly leeching off of the state - welfare recipients should simply seek work in order to escape poverty (Waugh). This is a problematic point of view, since it rests on the assumption that work inevitably provides enough income to pay the bills. This is patently false; the sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen notes that low-wage, low-benefit work is a feature, not a bug, in economies with lax labour market regulations like that of Hong Kong (Esping-Andersen 16). This means that, even in instances where lower-income individuals work, they still require the added supplement of income from welfare to meet their expenses.

One must also understand that the causes of poverty are largely structural, so any attempt to pin poverty on individual failure is misguided. In a capitalist economy, households can largely only earn income through two means: labour market participation or capital ownership (Bruenig). This economic model is laden with cracks. Policy Analyst Matt Bruenig’s analysis of the American populace notes that poverty is disproportionately centred amongst groups such as children, the disabled, and the elderly, who are significantly less likely to seek work (Bruenig). No reasonable person would say that members of these categories should be obligated to work, yet in these instances the market unjustly punishes them for this reality. Hence, the state must step in where the market fails, not because of poor personal choice on the part of recipients, but rather because of capitalism’s intrinsic flaws.

So now that we’ve cleared up that welfare stigma is fundamentally illogical and unjust, the next question is what we can actually do to reduce its influence. One solution could be to universalise welfare provision, providing welfare benefits to everyone - not just the poorest. Universalised benefits are typically associated with reduced stigma (Esping-Andersen 64), in part due to a less stringent application process. Shifting the manner in which the media portrays welfare recipients is also imperative. Studies suggest that news and TV shows exaggerate the extent of benefit fraud, and emphasise a supposed lack of effort on the part of recipients (Baumberg et al.). We should thus encourage more realistic portrayals of recipients, that highlight the visceral consequences of stigma and challenge prevailing preconceptions.

When we beg the question as to whether welfare recipients ought to be subjected to the gibbet of stigma, what we are really asking is this: are we willing to treat the indigent with the dignity that they deserve, or are we simply going to stand by as our fellow citizens are condemned to torment for simply seeking to survive from day to day? To any reader who sees reliance on the state for support as a symbol of individual failure, I implore you: pull back the curtain of stigma, for what lurks behind is a set of premises that are as misleading and factually incorrect as they are cruel.

Maybe then, people like Errol can live in peace.

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