Posts Tagged ‘Welfare’

Attitudes about helping those in poverty in the United States have long been connected to the idea of whether the individuals in question are deserving of help. Social Security and worker’s compensation are seen as policies that typically benefit those who “earned” society’s help by working, while welfare is seen as a policy that benefits the lazy who are unwilling to support themselves. Calls for drug testing for welfare recipients reflects the belief that these people are trying to cheat the system. This does not mean, however, that Americans are unwilling to help when somebody is seen as deserving.

In early February the Detroit Free Press published a story about James Robertson, a 56-year-old man who walked 21 miles to get to and from work five days a week. He had done this for a decade. Robertson, who apparently did not make enough money to afford a car, is praised as somebody who never complains and “can’t imagine not working.” He is, essentially, the perfect image of the deserving poor. As a result, within days of the story a collection had been started in his name, raising $350,000, and a local Ford dealership had given him a new car. With more money, however, came more problems, as Robertson recently moved out of fear that his fame and fortune would put him in danger.

Clearly, Americans are not opposed to helping others but we have a strong distrust of those who need assistance. It would be nice if it didn’t take national headlines to convince us that those in poverty are deserving of help.

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In class when talking about commonly held beliefs that are not actually true, we discussed a reading stating that the majority of people on welfare are not, in fact, African American.  One student revealed another commonly held belief about researcher bias by asking, “Is the author black?”

No, the author is not black and, beyond that, race does not influence one’s ability to read a statistical table.

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When I teach Intro I often end the semester by stating that I hope students will take something away from the course regardless of their major or future career path.  This is particularly true in the case of people who will eventually take on roles that affect the course of our country, such as those pursuing business, law, or education.  I feel better about these careers knowing that those who pursue them have had some sociological training.  In recent years, however, my sense of what I want these students to take away from sociology has been solidified as I listen to political rhetoric and talk to friends who took sociology courses (way) back in college but who have moved away from sociological ideas as a result of exposure to the “real world.”  What I want students to take away from sociology is this: You cannot draw conclusions about society based on the people that you interact with on a daily basis.

As a graduate student and an assistant professor I have heard friends, family, community members, and politicians refer to the “real world.”  When they do so, they almost universally mean the social world that they inhabit.  Their own experiences, then, are real, while those of others in different settings contain an element that they perceive to be artificial.  A businessperson may justify a decision to outsource jobs for greater profit margins by explaining that the people protesting the action do not understand the “real world” of business.  Similarly, somebody may justify a racist statement by noting that it is grounded in “real world” interaction with members of the racial group in question.  In each case, individuals privilege their own experiences over the larger body of knowledge that could be accessed through simple research about society as a whole.

Through this process, the lessons that we teach in sociology courses about race, class, or gender are likely to be overridden by individuals who interact with one or two people that confirm societal stereotypes.  Stereotypes about welfare recipients, for example, are rampant.  This morning on Facebook I read several assertions that many families have been taking advantage of welfare for generations with no acknowledgement that there have been strict work and time requirements on welfare since 1996.  A sociology student may recognize this, but a sociology graduate may not.  In my future courses I will spend a much larger amount of time emphasizing that individual experiences are not an appropriate basis for drawing conclusions about society.  If students take nothing else away from my courses I will consider myself successful.

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