Preliminary Exploration of Public Stigma - TribPapers

Preliminary Exploration of Public Stigma

Photo by Mackenzie Marco.

Asheville – At home or at church, we’re taught “Beware of pride,” “Thou shalt not covet,” “Don’t compare yourself with others,” “Be grateful/content with what you have,” and similar aphorisms. When kids made fun of us in school, we might have been told to be an example of maturity they might not be getting at home. 

It’s different in government. For example, in conversations of affordable housing, we’re told more and more public money must be spent in order to spare people stigma. A cursory search for policy analyses on the public costs of addressing stigma revealed this topic is not receiving much scholarly attention. It also revealed a pernicious pattern.

A couple generations ago, when it was not considered “patriarchal,” “white supremacist,” or “misogynist” to speak of the Puritan ethic in public discourse; “working one’s way up” was a value and part of growing up. Young couples striking out on their own would start with entry-level employment, while renting a humbly-furnished, inexpensive apartment. With time, and kids with needs inspiring higher-level employment, the couple would climb what was called the “housing ladder,” which might include moving to a better apartment and then to a starter home, and then to larger and higher-quality homes. As they left each abode, they made space for the people on lower rungs of the ladder to move upward.

Years ago, Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, published jaw-dropping statistics, highly correlating the success sequence with staying out of poverty. The success sequence, touted by many conservative think tanks, usually consists of three criteria: finishing high school, postponing childbearing until after marriage, and getting a job. Having in recent years reviewed poverty more with an insider’s lens, Tanner continues to vouch for the sequence, but argues there is ambiguity in the assignment of cause. 

Whereas some groups ride the success sequence like a moral high horse, Tanner asks, for example, whether a single woman is poor because she got pregnant or if she got pregnant because she was poor. If she wasn’t married, who was she supposed to marry when all the men her age from her community are either in jail or carry records preventing them from getting a job and being a responsible husband? If somebody is poor because they dropped out of high school, was it because the violence in that school was insufferable? 

Underlying Tanner’s insights is the realization that persons on the receiving end of the stigmatization of the successful, whether patronizing or downright humiliating, have no incentive to warm up to their fatherly advice to get over their fears of stigma. Both the needy and the would-be helpers have room to grow.

Meanwhile, Don Watkins, a fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute specializing in, “Social Security, entitlements, and the moral foundations of capitalism;” unmasked a motivation for whipping up stigma back in 2014. In his book, RooseveltCare, he argued, Social Security has, though not exclusively, “eroded the eagerness, energy, and optimism that once defined America.”

Watkins acknowledged a lot of poor people work hard and are trying to do the right thing, but some are, “bottom feeders who reap advantages they would never be able to obtain on a free market. These are the seekers of the unearned who couldn’t care less where their money comes from – so long as it keeps coming without effort or moral reprobation. In a self-reliant society, the seekers of the unearned have to rely on begging, manipulation, or out-and-out crime to line their pockets. The entitlement state not only gives them virtually unlimited access to other people’s wallets – it removes the stigma of being on the dole by allowing moochers to hide among the many decent people forced into the scheme.” In other words, government is feeding its constituents’ seven deadlies at the expense of cultivating humanitarian attributes.

Even though poverty indices had been declining without the entitlement statists’ programs. “Their aim was not to end dependency, but to end the stigma of dependency. Before the 1960s, writes [Marvin] Olasky, ‘the public dole was humiliation, but thereafter young men were told [by entitlement statists] that shining shoes was demeaning, and that accepting government subsidy meant a person “could at least keep his dignity.’’’ The goal, according to entitlement statist Richard Elman, was to ‘make dependency legitimate’ so that recipients could ‘consume with integrity.’ If the work ethic had once represented the idealization of self-reliance, then this campaign represented the idealization of dependency.” 

Since then, the volume of articles calling for reducing the stigma involved in signing up for government programs, from food stamps to help with opioid addiction, has been large. The mindset sends the message that the problem to be solved is not poverty – although poverty in America remains quite comfortable relative to living conditions elsewhere in the world and through the bulk of human history – but trying to get out of poverty without government assistance.

As occurs elsewhere in the welfare state, government is not protecting citizen access to means and space for the cultivation of talents for personal or cooperative benefit; bureaucrats and politicians have singled out the vulnerable and are dehumanizing them, like helicopter parents overdramatizing their children’s every action, to prove how magnanimous they are, how worthy of promotion or re-election. Even something as vapid as stigma can be blown into a crisis to justify new appropriations for building capacity.

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