The Stigma of Poverty and Welfare

By Ashley Allen

In America, millions rely on social services like Medicaid, Food Stamps, WIC, and TANF. Over 73 million low-income or disabled individuals have access to Medicaid, and 32 million have assistance with housing among the millions of others receiving aid for other services. Without such services, many would go hungry, without healthcare, and, in many cases, wouldn’t have a roof over their heads. The state of the U.S. economy and workforce is always a concern for the millions of Americans who are struggling, living paycheck to paycheck just to get by every month. According to CNBC, over 78% of the U.S. workforce lives this way, a vast majority of which are women. To make ends meet for themselves and their families, many rely on social services. Of course, there is further debate of the effects on the economy that these programs have, however for this discussion, we are focusing more on the perceptions and stigmas attached to welfare services.

Political scientist Suzanne Mettler conducted a study for Cornell University in which she found that the American people’s views on social services vary depending on many factors including age, race, income level, and more. Her studies found that middle-income individuals are often more resentful of welfare while those with higher-income levels have rather similar views to low-income individuals, which are fairly accepting of the services. Her study suggested that middle-income individuals feel they are receiving the “short end of the stick” when it comes to government aid. It is a very interesting study from her book, “The Government – Citizen Disconnect” (2018). This is likely due to the social stigmas attached to welfare which results in those who can get by without it — but who would likely benefit and qualify — not bothering to apply. This leaves them feeling like they are not getting the same treatment or benefits of lower income families.

The stigmas attached to social services and poverty are fierce. Prejudice and discrimination exists for those benefitting from government aid in a variety of forms. It creates an imaginary, yet huge, social divide between the poor and the middle and upper classes.  Inferiority and belittlement are thrust upon the lowest of income classes by others who are, for whatever reason, more economically comfortable. The fact of the matter has become that some are born with more privilege than others, and while one can rise above their circumstances, more often than not citizens find themselves stuck in the cycle of poverty. With so many working paycheck to paycheck to support families (again, 78% of all Americans), it has become a rough and tiring cycle. This leaves millions in need for government aid.

It’s easy to have an opinion on an issue without witnessing the firsthand experiences of those who receive aid. Consider that single mom at Walmart with her WIC vouchers. She has to choose specific items that fit the tickets to redeem. If an item is rejected, she has to go back and try again to find the proper item fitting the voucher. It is a lengthy process to verify and run through. People behind her in line become impatient because they have their own places to be that day. They take out their frustrations on this anxious mom who is likely just as frustrated as they are. Some people are yelled at and harassed for their use of these benefits. Many women depend on those WIC benefits to feed their children.

Mary Beth Unthank wrote intimately about what it is like to be a WIC mom for Knoxville Mom Blog and had one request for her readers who don’t receive WIC: “Please be kind.”

“Even with the ridiculous office visits, frustrating shopping experience, and difficult process of checking out, by far the worst part of being on WIC is facing you, my friend, the person in line behind me. Whether you’re being inconspicuous or passive aggressive, I see you checking your watch every 60 seconds and huffing your breath every time the cashier questions one of my items. I see you walking back and forth to nearby checkout lanes, considering whether it is worth it for you to reload all your items back in your cart and move to another line.”

People find themselves being shamed for not only using WIC, but also food stamps, Medicaid, and damn near all other government benefits. This stigma leads to people wanting to be secretive about what they may receive, or simply not applying due to the attitudes surrounding benefitting from government aid. The biggest complaint has become that too many people are receiving aid from the government. Is that truly the case, or are there too many forced to live below the poverty line in the United States (due to things like low wages, gender pay gap and high costs of living and child care)?

The origination of this stigma could very possibly have begun during the Reagan presidency. President Reagan campaigned his change for welfare by telling the story of the “Welfare Queen” in 1976. He described her as a woman who manipulates and dishonestly receives welfare so that she can drive her brand-new Cadillac and live lavishly. It was an image of a woman abusing the system so that she was better off than those who had higher incomes and didn’t qualify for benefits. This was based on a real African American woman, Linda Taylor, who allegedly used dozens of names to receive benefits, driving her Cadillac to the courthouse after she was charged. The image of the “Welfare Queen” not only villianized the women receiving benefits honestly, but also African American women even further.


The truth of the matter is that few people imagine that one day they will rely on government assistance to get by. Times are hard, and the poverty cycle is rough. When the time comes that people realize they need assistance, it is likely not a celebratory day, but more of a sigh of relief. A mother now knows she can have access to formula for her baby with WIC. A couple knows they will have food for their children with Food Stamps, and a pregnant woman now has access to healthcare she wouldn’t otherwise have thanks to Medicaid. Still with the stigmas and frustrations aimed at these people, they lie low and often feel the need to be secretive about themselves. Those who commit welfare fraud are largely outnumbered by those who rely on it honestly, and their actions should absolutely not cast a shadow on those simply trying to fairly make ends meet in this world. We cannot assume that everyone is defrauding the system. Handling this yourself is best said, once more, by Mary Beth Unthank of Knoxville Mom Blog.

“Next time you’re stuck in line behind a WIC mom (or someone whose credit card won’t run or that customer counting out pennies to pay with exact change), think of how you would feel standing in their shoes. And remember that Golden Rule you’re teaching your kids? Treat others the way you would want to be treated in that situation: with grace.”


One thought

  1. One of the worst things about WIC is how they’ll just randomly change the benefits; a brand you could buy last month is suddenly being rejected, and you don’t know why and you weren’t informed, so now you either have to go without or you have to go back and try to figure out what other brand is still being accepted, if it’s even being accepted at all. Whole grains are the worst. You HAVE to buy a whole grain bread, but it has to be a specific size, and whoops, that brand of bread you found that you can buy on WIC that you and your kids fell in love with is suddenly off the menu, good luck figuring out what other breads WIC will accept because guess what? Wal-mart puts up stickers to show you what WIC will cover and apparently WIC didn’t even tell freaking Wal-mart they’re not covering that bread anymore. I gave up on WIC because of that BS. It seemed like it was worth it to pay the extra $50 for groceries not to have to deal with it, and I was lucky enough at that point to be able to spare $50. If that was literally the only way I could feed my kids, I don’t know what I’d do.

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