In a country with an ongoing debate over minimum wage levels, food stamp provision and universal healthcare, taking a step back and attempting to empathize with those directly impacted by their changes is necessary. An understanding of engrained structural inequality is crucial to rebuilding impoverished communities and populations. It’s unfortunate that the myth that still needs to be debunked is that of the lazy poor. The label of “welfare queen,” or those accused of collecting excessive welfare through fraud was once common in the 1960s and serves as a symbol of the present-day binary discourse surrounding poverty. That is, the unsettling idea of “us” and “them.”
Anti-poverty activist and professor of integrative studies Paul Gorski calls this the “deficit ideology.” In his 2010 paper, “Unlearning Deficit Ideology and Scornful Gaze” Gorski writes that deficit ideology “is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities … by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities.”
In a loose colloquial generalization, we too often use “they:” they don’t value education, they choose to use drugs, they don’t know how to eat healthily, they all choose to have children at young ages and they are all disposed to take advantage of government welfare programs. The list goes on.
While easy enough for an explanation of inequality, deficit ideology leads to assumptions that are ignorant of the sociopolitical context that surrounds and impacts disenfranchised communities. It instead relies on the idea that problems spawn from within – it’s the same thing as blaming the victim.
This dogma allows for a continuance of quick-fix remedies as problem solvers: low-cost fruits and vegetables, free parent mentoring, assistance for teenage pregnancy. In a display how out of touch policy-makers and outreach organizations can be, we see a way of fixing inequality with a focus on problems within communities, rather than those that weigh upon them.
In her viral Gawker piece “Why I Make Terrible Decisions,” Linda Tirado provides an eye-opening adventure into the decisions of those low-income individuals that academics, politicians, journalists and more speak about, and often shame, on a daily basis.
Tirado writes about fast food, a classic inferior good that is now stigmatized if used as a main source of nutrition: “Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have. Why would we give that up? We have very few of them.” Did that occur to anyone when they thought of farmers markets as a cure for malnourishment?
While a common and short-term cure for food access and insecurity is to throw fruits and vegetables in low-income areas, Tirado reminds us that this won’t make a difference, as the action ignores the circumstances that brought her to where she currently stands and bind her to this “hopeless” state, including terribly low wages and out-of-reach health care.
When fast food is a pleasure and access to health care is scant, what needs to happen is structural shift that allows individuals to enjoy healthful lifestyles without feeling pressed for time and money, something that we should all have.
Health should not be a priority only for the privileged. It should be provided for all, easily and conveniently. The idea that life is hopeless for so many people is frightening, and should remind those with power about the importance of government-funded services to those individuals that literally cannot provide themselves and their families with what they need in both the short and long term, at no fault of their own.