The Middle Class View of Those On Welfare: A Personal Reflection and Response

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

I’ve never thought of myself as poor. So naturally, I was very surprised when I called my mother to discuss what I had been researching for my PSY 385 class and I asked her how she would classify us in a socioeconomic category. “Borderline lower middle class, if not lower class” she said. I was puzzled. Hadn’t I always lived my life comfortably? I always had a roof over my head, we always had running water and cable TV, I went to an amazing public school in an upper middle class neighborhood. I knew what poor was. I grew up in an apartment complex, I’d seen ‘poor’ first hand, my dad couch surfed for a good portion of my life. I had to ask my mom why she would categorize us in such a manner. What brought us down to this status? Here, I have to admit that I thought less of myself than before, when the rest of my life I had spent thinking that I had a small leg up on society. I knew I wasn’t rich by any means, but not lower class. I’m ashamed to admit now that this disappointed me and after doing more research and hearing my mom explain things to me, I am much more open minded about this, and also thankful for the things I do have.

 During our conversation about the article on the middle class view towards people with government aid, my mom told me about her personal experiences with government help; since I was born, my mother has received various amounts of aid from the government, including Illinois LINK (food stamps), HUD housing, Medicaid, etc. My mother rarely acknowledged these programs in our lives and if she did, it wasn’t as abnormal or something that made us lesser people. She was, after all, a single mom, working on a hair stylist’s salary. My dad wasn’t much for contributing monetarily, so my mom did a lot of paying for the basics on her own. 

 Here is where I have a major problem with the middle class view of the poor. According to my research, low income is highly associated with low status, little education and laziness (Bullock, 1995). And according to the majority of social scientists my family unit (my mother and I) are low income, lower class. I don’t understand how this is possible when I know that my mother is both educated (with a high school degree, 2 years of college and a trade degree) and motivated. 

 In reading Bullock’s article, I found so many appalling issues with the way that some may look down on others just because they are known to receive government aid, especially the implications that this stigma may have on these people.

 A reoccurring factor in my study was that of implied laziness associated with welfare recipients, “Smith (1987) asserts that the greater support found for the poor and unemployed illustrates the association of wastefulness, fraud and bureaucracy with welfare” (Bullock). People were found to be more in favor of aid to the poor, the unemployed, and in support of food stamps than when the word welfare was involved. This is an indicator of the national stigma that surrounds welfare recipients. I have seen this stigma first hand, and I have hidden behind my exterior appearance for a long time so that people wouldn’t know that I was a recipient of welfare. I can even remember a specific time my mom sent me to the grocery store with our food stamps card and she told me specifically “don’t go in a check-out lane where a high school kid is working, I don’t want your classmates to know we get government help”. And similarly, I actually had a friend who worked at a grocery store all throughout high school and he always complained about how people with food stamps would come in with iPhones or Ugg boots on and ask why they couldn’t use that money to “pay their own bills”. As I stared at my own phone and nice boots, I felt shame run through me. Was I a fraud? Was my mom wrong for working so hard to get me a nice gift or two for Christmas? 

 After looking back on these instances, I reflected on how they had affected me. If I can have such inner grief about being a welfare recipient, how can this affect others who aren’t as self-actualized and confident as I am? I thought of kids in bad areas seeing politicians on the news talking badly about welfare or hearing their teacher make negative comments. What happens to them? They have a low sense of self-worth, dignity and they are probably less likely to see a positive future for themselves.

 Since it is an election year, I have been especially interested in how this particular subject comes into play when voting for our next President, or even how this impacts my political affiliation. I personally feel like a victim, judged by conservatives. My mother, and so many other single moms, deserves help! They work their tails off to provide for their kids, and sometimes it’s not enough. If they try to get a degree, the government has the right to take away their aid. Some have to sacrifice progressing in the work place so they can continue to get medical or educational help for their children. Where is the justice in that?

 My half-sister and I have different mothers. Her mother is a teacher’s assistant at a very poor school in a bad part of town. She works for roughly $250 a week just so she can have health insurance. She is working on a bachelor’s degree, and as soon as she earns it, the government will stop helping her send my sister to school, provide her with health insurance, and raise the price of their rent. It seems to me that the playing field is not even. How are people supposed to get themselves out of welfare if gaining an education may put you into a worse position? The price of living goes up, regardless of your means. These are the kinds of situations that I wish the upper class politicians could see, and put themselves in. Maybe then they wouldn’t pass judgment. Welfare recipients are not bums; they’re hard working American citizens.

 I also have a very personal connection with the government’s aid in regards to health care. During winter break of 2010, after a series of events, my mom ended up in the hospital for a couple days. That's when we learned she had a life threatening condition that deals with the coagulation of her blood. This was a truly devastating point in my life, as I’m sure anyone can imagine. My mom's life is still in danger every day because of this condition (which still cannot be named or exactly defined). That same month, under the Obama administration, it was mandated that insurance companies cannot turn people down for having pre-existing health conditions. Without going into too many details, my mom's health and life are made possible thanks to a policy that President Obama implemented. My life was forever changed by this event and I am eternally grateful that I live in a country where policies like this are possible. 

 The world may be an unjust place, but I have a belief that there is potential for good. The stigma against people who get aid from the government must stop. Many times, it is not the case that these people are lazy or uneducated, other conditions may factor into their needs. As for myself, I hope to become an advocate for just treatment of all in hope to decrease ignorance and to increase awareness about such social issues. 

 To my reader: How do you think you can help change the stigma surrounding such programs as welfare? Why do you think these beliefs are still held? Are programs like this fair; how do we determine who should receive this aid?