Stigma Hinders Working Poor, Welfare Recipients

August 23, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.-- Working poor and welfare-dependent people feel challenged by stigma and stereotypes, although they want and strive for a better life, just like everyone else, say researchers.

"Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, policymakers and social commentators have speculated on the effects of welfare reform on parents and children," says Dr. Linda Burton, professor of human development and sociology at Penn State.

"But it is still unknown how individuals are experiencing the complex new welfare system that is still emerging two years later, varying greatly by state and even by county," she adds. "It may be experienced differently by people from different racial and ethnic groups."

Stigma is an underestimated powerful and subtle force that affects people in different ways, say the researchers. The struggle to lead ordinary lives for working poor and welfare-dependent is hard enough, without facing negative attitudes even from professionals who are part of the support system.

Burton, Frank Avenilla and Tasha Snyder, graduate students at Penn State, Robin Jarrett of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Judy Francis and Constance Williams of Brandeis University and James Quane of Harvard University presented their findings today (Aug. 23) at the American Sociological Association annual conference.

The researchers conducted interviews involving 220 welfare-dependent and working poor men and women in 21 focus groups held in Chicago, Boston and Baltimore. The participants included African Americans, White Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.

In the focus groups, working poor and welfare-dependent individuals reinforced the stigma by citing examples of welfare system abusers, but they considered their own situation as distinctive and separate from undeserving people.

"There are mothers who get aid and change the stamps for cash because they like to drink...I've heard about it, I've seen it. I've been offered...And I don't. What they give for the benefit of the children, I spend it very well on my children," says one participant of a focus group.

Participants complained that they constantly encounter scorn and barriers from some social workers and potential employers. Constantly running that stigma gauntlet drains a person's energy, which could be better used to obtain work and take care of their families, says Burton, also a senior research associate with Penn State's Population Research Institute.

"Basically, they are running your life. They want to know everything. They want to know who you slept with and what kind of contraceptive you're using. You have babies when they want you to have them, you get mad when they want you to get mad," says a focus group participant.

In the future, policymakers need to take care that their proposals are not based on stigma and stereotypes, but well-researched information about individuals receiving assistance, according to the researchers.

"Most working poor and welfare-dependent people feel they are penalized for wanting ordinary things," says Burton. "That paradox may interfere with their progress in moving up the economic ladder and transitioning from government assistance."

The researchers' report is an initial phase in the ethnographic component of a larger on-going project, "Welfare Reform and Children: A Three-City Study." The overall project is headed by Ronald Angel of University of Texas-Austin, Burton of Penn State, P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale of University of Chicago, Andrew Cherlin and Robert Moffitt, both of Johns Hopkins University, and William Julius Wilson of Harvard University.

Penn State

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