The New York Times recently faced criticism after publishing a factually incorrect op-ed about how much money people receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) spend on soda and other sweetened beverages. In a piece challenging the findings, Professor of Public Policy Joe Soss revisits the numbers and finds no substantial difference in spending between people who receive these benefits and people who don’t. Non-SNAP households spend about four cents on soft drinks for every dollar on groceries, and SNAP households spend about five cents per dollar. Soss points out that this error perpetuates stereotypical moral judgments about the poor. Research finds time and time again that these moral judgments often miss the facts, but they nevertheless have a big impact on our social safety net policies.
Historical work finds that aid to the poor in the United States developed to be highly conditional — political leaders often justified policies by focusing on certain “deserving” categories of people like soldiers and mothers. As a result, moral narratives about who deserves aid became central to the policymaking process and continue to shape attitudes about helping the poor.
- Theda Skocpol. 1996. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
- Brian Steensland. 2006. “Cultural Categories and the American Welfare State: The Case of Guaranteed Income Policy.” American Journal of Sociology 111(5):1273–1326.
- Linda J. Skitka and Philip E. Tetlock. 1993. “Providing Public Assistance: Cognitive and Motivational Processes Underlying Liberal and Conservative Policy Preferences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65(6):1205–23.
These moral narratives bias our thinking about people who are poor and hide the fact that they are often no different from people who aren’t. For example, despite efforts to drug test welfare recipients, substance use rates are not much higher among the poor. And single motherhood in poor communities does not come from different sexual behavior — it happens because poor mothers value family just as much as everyone else. By treating poor people as morally deviant, our public policy can do more harm than good.
- Bridget F. Grant and Deborah A. Dawson. 1996 “Alcohol and drug use, abuse, and dependence among welfare recipients.” American Journal of Public Health 86(10): 1450-1454.
- Kathyrn Edin and Maria Kefalas. 2005. Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford Schram. 2011. Disciplining the Poor Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.