Stigmatising those in need is a grubby game



Every society has ways of marking out, and sometimes marking, people who are considered a lesser breed.

Brand in flamesThe Greek word stigma originally referred to the branding of slaves and traitors. In other societies adultery, desertion, Jewish descent, imprisonment, ignorance and other crimes also earned branding or wearing distinctive clothing. The scold's bridle, the scarlet letter, the yellow star, the white feather and the striped uniform are just a few of the ways to exclude people from the benefits of society by marking them as outsiders. 

In Australia such external forms of stigmatising are generally seen as a bit crude — though the recent withdrawal of medical benefits from people brought back from Manus Island for treatment shows that crudity and cruelty are alive and well. But the expectation that the state will ensure that the weakest and most disadvantaged in society can live with self-respect has caused problems for governments. They balk at making the wealthy fund their share of that care through higher taxes, but fear the electoral consequences of being seen as heartless.

The solution has been to allow the real value of Newstart and its equivalents to decline. Those whose life is diminished by this deprivation are then stigmatised. That has traditionally been done by straightforward blackguarding. People who are unemployed were called dole-bludgers and refugees called illegals, and accused of ripping off the community. People would then regard as justifiable the hardship imposed on the targeted groups.

The brutality and cynicism inherent in this frontal attack is now increasingly recognised as such. As a result, stigmatisation has had to become a little more subtle. Government measures to reduce the welfare budget are no longer presented as just punishment but as a way of addressing social evils. But they imply that the people in need of benefits compose the social groups infected by the evil.

For example, some tens of millions of dollars are being committed to programs addressing alcohol and drug dependence among unemployed Australians. Who could argue with the need for programs that address drug dependence? But the association of drug dependence with unemployment encourages the public to see addiction as the problem of the unemployed and a problem affecting all unemployed. They will then be seen to need therapy more than income support.

A more blatant example is the proposal that unemployed people receiving benefits should be tested for drugs. There is no evidence that this would be helpful in addressing addiction, any more than that compulsory breath testing would lower alcohol addiction among politicians. But it does suggest that unemployed people as a whole are affected by addiction, and humiliates those tested. Humiliation rarely contributes to the freedom people need to change their way of life.


"The effect of this measure is to encourage the view that Indigenous communities are incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, and that increased funds will only extend the evil."


In this proposal, too, the effect of the stigmatisation will provide a pretext for depriving people in need, and so reducing the cost to government. These costs can be further reduced by imposing onerous conditions and fining people for non-compliance.

The added advantage to governments is that it draws attention away from the scarcity of jobs available to people who are unemployed, and makes unemployment seem their fault. The blame is shifted from the government for its management of the economy to people who suffer from the injustices of that management.

Another current example of stigmatisation is the cashless card, widely rejected and seen as demeaning by Indigenous communities. It was promoted as a response to the high rates of severe alcoholism, domestic violence, and absenteeism from school in Indigenous communities, and the alleged diversion of government funds from women and children to the support of addictive habits.

But the effect of this measure is to encourage the view that Indigenous communities are incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, and that increased funds will only extend the evil. To address a problem that has its root in loss of self-respect, associated with widespread unemployment, the response was to humiliate and further reduce self-respect. The white cashless card was like the Dunce's cap emblazoned with a capital D.

Even a flawed government report produced no hard evident that it had done good — more respondents believed it had done harm. It certainly disadvantaged individuals and the life of communities by reducing the cash available for informal transactions within the community. The cost of the program would be better directed to increasing employment.

These initiatives are sideshows, grubby and voyeuristic. They mask the simple truth: that governments have the duty to respect people as human beings and not as ciphers, to provide benefits that help people to live with self-respect, to take responsibility for the disadvantage of Indigenous Australians and to involve them in its healing. And above all to see the support of people who are disadvantaged as a responsibility cheerfully to be accepted not slithered away from.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, cashless welfare cards, Aboriginal Australians, Newstart



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Existing comments

Base behaviour is never a good look. People in authority resort to this method to subdue 'others', to bend them to their will. Unfortunately, we are all capable of it. Governments treat Indigenous people this way because of seemingly intractable problems. Interpersonal relationships need good communication and trust and when these break down it's tempting to use less than savoury methods to get our own way. It's a report card where 'can do better' is definitely the verdict.

Pam | 23 May 2018  

Australia's off-shore concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru should be closed asap and all the asylum seekers there be brought to Australia. There have been 7 deaths of asylum seekers on Manus Island alone! Our politicians should also ensure that all Austalians have a decent income. The New Start allowance of $40 a day is well below the poverty line. Voters, please consider carefully who you vote for at the next election and lobby politicians in the meantime.

Grant Allen | 23 May 2018  

A clear and accurate analysis of the rusted on government attitudes to the less fortunate. We'll said Andrew but how can we break through these policies?

John Bartlett | 24 May 2018  

The lack of care, consideration and respect happens frequently even in small communities such as aged homes, sporting clubs(e.g. Essendon-drug scandal) where the hierarcy squashes ignores debases those down there! Its become, I suspect increasingly hard to 'walk in other's shoes' when the pressure is on to maintain progress, purpose focus and to blame or ignore the importance of others. Withdrawing medical benefits from refugees what a callous action unworthy of us. God help us all in this so called "Lucky Country".

helen m donnellan | 24 May 2018  

Important article as the huge rift between rich and poor in Australia has become a seemingly unbridgeable gap in one of the world's richest countries. The incredible hardship being forced to attempt live on the now publicised $17 per day for food and other essentials absolute once rent and power costs.That is, if you have a dwelling at all. The scandal of the sell off of public housing - 20,000 plus houses in one state alone - and the practice continuing. How are family to live peacefully with each other faced with such overwhelming anxiety. As Andrew H notes the stigmatisation of the Cashless Card ... Governments unfortunately have created the problems with Aboriginal and Islander communities and continue to refuse to heed the solutions which Aboriginal and TSI themselves know. The Aboriginal industry continues to give employment to so many non Aboriginal people with the government's own 'solutions' cf the shamefully decade plus ongoing NT Intervention; the outsourcing of the Cashless Card to profit making companies like Indue and so on seemingly infinitum

Michele Madigan | 24 May 2018  

You have astutely picked apart the subtle, [or not so] nuances of the language and marketing used here Andrew, with a critical eye, which, l'm sure most of the general populous would not discern. Thank you, this needs a broader audience. [Perhaps an example of sneaky, underhanded marketing!!!]

Julie Shannon | 24 May 2018  

Fully agree but Catholic Welfare must fight hard for the REAL unemployment figures to be published by both sides in parliament so that even the most gullible would see through the stigmatisation that happens to Newstart recipients.

Marcus L'Estrange | 24 May 2018  

Andrew Hamilton - congratulations! You have said what had to be said. Stigmatising those in need is indeed a very grubby game. It is also a very unfair one. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard very wealthy people verbally attacking needy people and trying to blame them for all of society's problems. In many cases, the reason why many are in need is because the very small elite who play this unfair and grubby game are in the forefront of exploiting these people to maximise their fortunes while demanding policies that cut spending on education, health and social services. Then there are the very conservative politicians that who introduce inhumane policies that lead to further suffering for the have-nots at home and abroad. On the international scene, colonisers have used similar arguments to justify their exploitative treatment of those they colonised and the environments in which they lived. As humanity faces many environmental challenges - most of which will adversely affect needy people more harshly - we need to build a much fairer and caring society that overcomes the widening economic gap between the have-nots and the very few and extremely wealthy haves.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 28 May 2018  

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