To make sure there is no desirable social identity outside of employment, the unemployed are stigmatised. They tend to be portrayed in the media as either frauds, hopeless cases or lazy bludgers who are living it up at taxpayers expense. “As a result of their jobless status, they are subject to a range of economic and social discriminations, including stigmatization, economic and social invisibility, stereotyping, denial of authority, and exclusion from the job market.”
It is in the interests of governments and employers to reinforce prejudices against the unemployed. The government would rather people blamed the unemployed for high levels of unemployment than government policies. The efforts to make sure recipients continue to look for jobs, benefits employers who want maximum competition for the jobs they offer.
Labelling welfare recipients as bludgers and scroungers, cheats, delinquents, and deviants is advantageous to employers because it ensures they continue to look for jobs so that there is always competition in the labour market. It also “works to make the unemployed feel guilty and humble instead of angry and indignant”.
However, in recent years the humbling and impoverishment of the unemployed has not been enough for some employers who rely on a ready supply of desperate workers to fill low-paid unpleasant jobs. This is because the jobs they offer are just as humbling and badly paid as welfare. Under pressure from the business community and the think tanks they finance, governments in English speaking countries have introduced welfare reforms that further deter people from seeking welfare, limit the time they can be on welfare, and prevent them from receiving benefits without working for them.
Discrimination on the basis of work status is not treated seriously as a form of discrimination in the way that discrimination on the basis of gender, race and disability are but it is just as real. It extends to retired people, homemakers and students but is particularly targetted at ‘unemployed’ people.
The need to stigmatise the unemployed as an example to others goes back to at least the seventeenth century when attempts were made in England to get people receiving poor relief to wear badges on their sleeves. Similarly those receiving poor relief in many of the American colonies were also required to wear badges sewn onto their clothing. “Stigma was an overt and integral part” of poor relief in both countries: “The physical appearance of inmates was altered, by compulsory wearing of institutional dress and hair-cropping, so as to illustrate and emphasise the changed status of those in occupation.”
Today much of the stigma comes from media portrayals. The unemployed are depicted as being unemployed as a result of their lack of work and motivation rather than as a consequence of corporations sacking large numbers of workers and moving operations to third world countries. Welfare recipients and their advocates are seldom given the opportunity to counter such portrayals in the media—they are used as sources only 9 % of the time for stories on welfare according to a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Newspapers love headlines such as “Luxury Life on the Dole: Two homes, a car and a private pool,” or “Teenagers Make a Living on the Dole”. The latter story from an Australian newspaper told of Keith (no surname supplied) “a smart and artistic youth” who gave up a trainee job after three weeks “Because I’ve decided to go up to the Gold Coast, laze about the beaches and live on the dole”. People are both shocked and fascinated by such stories, their prejudices are confirmed and they can feel indignant rather than sympathetic.
Through the seventies conservatives did their best to characterise unemployed as lazy scroungers in Britain. Iain Sproat a backbencher claimed that half those receiving unemployment benefits weren’t really looking for work and Robert Adley, another conservative politician, argued that people were “sick and tired” of having their taxes “squandered on people who would not know what a day’s work looked like if it stared them in the face.”
The media amplified such comments with stories of their own about individuals who had been convicted of welfare fraud. In 1975, when asked “What is the one thing you would most like to change to improve the quality of life in Britain today?”, people expressed welfare concerns — like “make people work” and “stop social security abuses”—third most frequently out of all concerns including crime and world peace.
In the 1970s an Australian media campaign against welfare recipients was also particularly effective at stigmatising them. The Daily Mirror reported:
Weed Out the Dole Cheats! It is patently obvious that there are people in this community who don’t give a damn about their mates. They laughingly laze on beaches, frequent pubs and clubs, indulge themselves all day, living as parasites on the community. They are the dole bludgers.
Similarly the respected Age newspaper ran a story entitled “Jobless who cop it sweet” in which its economics writer stated “There are two classes of cheats—the criminal variety (working and also collecting the dole) and malingerers (collecting the dole and making no attempt to gain a job).”
The media coverage succeeded in stigmatising the unemployed. A survey by academics and students at Monash University found that the majority of those surveyed felt that unemployment benefits were too easy to get and 72 percent believed that there was widespread abuse of the benefits system.
In a more recent survey 66 percent of Australians said that they thought the welfare system makes people unwilling to look after themselves. This was even true of the young who had the highest rates of unemployment. Over half of the 14-17 year olds surveyed said unemployment was due to “personal unwillingess to work”.
Perhaps nowhere have welfare recipients been so vilified as in the US where they are characterised as: “the greedy lazy Welfare Queen with six children and a freeloading boyfriend”.
From the 1970s conservative think tanks have played an important part in building resentment amongst workers against welfare recipients in the US. For example, both the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute have claimed that welfare recipients could get more income through various benefits than workers got from working.
The resentment against unemployed people whipped up by conservatives goes far beyond the costs to the taxpayer of maintaining welfare which in the 1980s, when it came under sustained attack in the US, made up only about 1 percent of the federal budget. The indignation about money spent on welfare has not been matched by a similar concern by the same people for the money spent on corporate welfare, including subsidies, tax breaks, and other financial incentives. Corporate welfare, or ‘wealthfare’, is estimated to cost the US government seven times more than welfare spent on the poor.
The US General Accounting Office reported that “in each year between 1989 to 1995, a majority of corporations, both foreign- and U.S.-controlled, paid no U.S. income tax.” Almost a third of the large corporations, some of them doing billions of dollars worth of business, paid no taxes. The mainstream media however focus on welfare to the unemployed as the big problem.
Joe Feagin found in his book on welfare and American beliefs that “one would be hard pressed to find a group of American citizens who have received more hostility and criticism than have welfare clients in the last few decades.” He noted that whilst “sensational and grossly exaggerated stereotypes” of other minority groups, such as black and Jews, had become unacceptable, “this was not the case for welfare recipients”.