Let Them Eat Shame

This is just a conclusion to the fun we had this weekend with the slimiest Federalist post ever published, entitled “Bring Back the Welfare Stigma.” Here is the opening gambit of the piece:

“It’s bad enough that we’ll have more students belly up to the government food trough (if you’ve never had a taste of “free” government lunch, consider yourself lucky); instead, consider RPS Superintendent Dana Bedden’s positive gushing about the new program: “I like it for the health and nutrition aspect, but this also removes the stigma of free lunch. Everyone can eat.”

Ah, “stigma:” one of the last great impediments to full-blown government dependency. With all due respect to Bedden, he and the rest of Richmond Public Schools are doing a grave disservice by attempting to remove the “stigma” associated with free government handouts.”

The advocacy here is very simple. It goes like this:

  1. Using government welfare programs is bad; it should be stigmatized.
  2. But it is not always stigmatized. Example: poor children who get to eat free lunches stigma-free due to community eligibility.
  3. This is wrong.
  4. In a perfect world, poor children who get free lunches due to community eligibility would feel stigmatized.

Now, the author has tried to claim that he never advocated the stigmatization of poor children. There are two problems with this: one, as you can very plainly see in the text above, his advocacy cannot logically result in any other outcome. There is no way you can say we should stigmatize welfare, example: lunches, but that we also simultaneously shouldn’t stigmatize those things. It literally doesn’t make sense.

If what he wants to claim is that we should stigmatize *things* — such as the use of welfare — and not people, that equally makes no sense. Stigma is relational; you cannot be stigmatized in private, isolated in a world of your own. There are no taboos and no stigmas without at least the vestige of a society, a kind of Greek chorus — internal or external — suggesting social censure of some kind. Therefore even if we explicitly condemn the stigmatization of children while advocating the stigmatization of what they do to live, that is, eat school lunches for free, then the outcome is going to be the stigmatization of children. Since the Federalist crew has repeatedly claimed the author is not in favor of stigmatizing children, please consider this quote from the piece and try to conclude it’s arguing anything else:

Keeping welfare firmly in the stigmatized realm is not merely a conservative crusade; it’s good policy, too. There is strong evidence that welfare use is transmitted from parents to children; that is to say, a parent’s using welfare significantly increases the likelihood that the child will use it, as well. This makes Richmond’s “free lunch” program all the more troubling, of course, for it essentially bypasses all parent involvement, at least in the children’s eyes, and grants a government handout directly to the child himself.

Again, the logic breakdown:

  1. It’s good policy to stigmatize welfare.
  2. Free lunches are especially bad for welfare programs.
  3. Free lunches should be stigmatized.

There’s literally no other policy advocacy you can derive from this, unless he’s arguing that, though welfare should be stigmatized and though free lunches are especially odious welfare programs, they for some reason are exempt from the ‘good policy’ of stigma. But why? Why on earth, other than the fact that he got called out for it?

On the other hand, if the article is neither advocating the return of stigma nor reporting upon its goodness (with the understanding that to report on the goodness of a thing is to make some normative claim about what ought to be done), then I’m not sure what on earth it might be saying. As a matter of history, it’s absolutely wrong: poor people already feel very ashamed of being poor and using welfare programs. Want proof?

There’s plenty of proof. Poor people don’t like being called poor or impoverished, they prefer phrases that emphasize that they’re working hard to fix their lives. Kids who qualify for free lunches often don’t eat them because their peers make fun of them. When asked why they’re poor, poor people themselves cite a ‘decline in moral values‘ as a major reason at the same rates as rich and middle class people do. Stephen Pimpare’s A People’s History of Poverty in America cites a sundry of examples of lived shame in poverty, and anyone who works with people who don’t have enough to make it know that there’s more where that came from.

This notion that being poor and asking for help is now celebrated or looked kindly upon is just wrong on the merits. Nobody needs to bring back the shame of being poor and using assistance; it never went away. Matt and I posted a number of clips from the Frontline documentary ‘Poor Kids‘ this weekend quoting impoverished children talking about the shame they feel in being poor and needing public assistance. It’s clear no stigma needs to be brought back.