Despite last week’s promising government figures showing a decline in the American unemployment rate, “Welfare and Citizenship: The Effects of Government Assistance on Young Adults’ Civic Participation,” serves as a reminder to social scientists that with every great social shift (such as the global economic downturn) we must re-examine our premises. The article, which relies heavily on data collected between 1996 and 2000, argues that declining civic participation can be causally linked to welfare participation. The authors echoed the concern that, “[d]eclinging voter turnout rates, an increase in single-issue, self-interested politics, and a retreat from associational ties and community involvement, among other trends, have signaled to many the weakening of American democracy.” This decline, they postulate, can be attributed, in part, to social assistance programs that bear stigma.

The article differentiates two tiers of state benefit programs. The first tier, “including social insurance benefits such as unemployment insurance, social security, and Medicare,” are thought to be universal entitlements with little or no stigma attached. The second tier, “including welfare and other supports for the poor such as general assistance and food stamps” are discretionary- causing the full citizenship of recipients to be called into question. The article hypothesizes that, despite the best intentions of scholars such as Marshall and Tocqueville, the “contemporary welfare state reduces active citizenship,” resulting in “lower political engagement among those who have participated in government assistance… [with] stronger effects among those receiving more stigmatizing welfare benefits (eg AFDC, food stamps) but weaker or no effects for those who receive less stigmatizing ‘first tier’ forms of government assistance.”

While the article recognizes the work of other theorists who attribute this low voter turnout to pre-existing characteristics already associated with low voter turnout including poverty, education, and age, the article maintains that the resulting disaffection is related to social stigma and the self-perception of only quasi citizenship. The authors cite Habermas’ argument that, “contemporary states managed by large bureaucratic apparatuses and dense laws may actually promote passive client citizenship.” The article concludes that in addition to designing social assistance programs that promote more active citizenship, policy makers must design a social assistance program that can overcome the more stigmatizing attributes of schemes like that of the food stamp program.

It will not be social policy, however, that makes the first step to overcoming the stigma of welfare programs. The New York Times published a feature on November 29 that took an in depth look at the social safety net in the past year. According to the report, food stamp use is currently at a record high. More than 36 million people are participating in the program; one in eight Americans and one in four children. This growing group is not comprised solely of single mothers and the chronically poor but also married couples, the newly jobless and workers whose hours have been significantly reduced.

While the number of those receiving assistance is on the rise, still only-two thirds of those eligible participate. According to Kevin Cancannon, an under secretary of agriculture, “This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression. It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.” The article also demonstrates that much of stigma surrounding “second tier” welfare programs is perpetuated by politicians and government representatives. In the 1990s, when some sought to abolish the food stamp program or “nutritional aid,” “Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles.” The same bureaucratic hurdles that Habermas warned would encourage passive citizenship.

The Times article explains that in cities and counties across the States, “old disdain for the program has collided with new needs” and “use has grown by half or more in dozens of suburban counties from Boston to Seattle, including such bulwarks of modern conservatism as California’s Orange County, where the rolls are up more than 50 percent.” It seems that the face of the welfare recipient is changing rapidly and drastically as millions of Americans find themselves in unanticipated hardship. This shift leads one to wonder if, as recovery continues and recipient rolls begin to decline again, this lapse in harsh stigma will be more than temporary. If nothing else it provides a window for the program’s proponents to create reform, including encouraging civic participation, without quite as thick cloud of doubt and disdain.

Read the article in the New York Times

Read “Welfare and Citizenship: The Effects of Government Assistance on Young Adults’ Civic Participation” by Teresa Toguchi Swartz, Amy Blackstone, Christopher Uggen and Heather McLaughlin

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