Last week my eight-year old daughter and I saw a homeless man texting while holding a sign asking for money. As we passed him she commented; “if he’s going to ask for money he shouldn’t have a mobile phone”. So I asked her what exactly she meant by that. “Well”, she said “he probably only gets $100 a day sitting on the street and a mobile phone costs what? $50,000 so how can he afford it?” OK so there are some serious issues with her financial literacy, but the more pressing concern is where this came from. She doesn’t hear that sort of talk at home. But it’s pretty obvious that she has heard this talk before. Given that it takes a village to raise a child, I’m guessing there might be some people lurking in our village who regularly use language implying that those in poverty don’t spend their money wisely.
That’s how social discourses about poverty and welfare work. People judge others despite knowing nothing about them. These judgements shape and create meaning that gain the status of “truth”, and determine how we define our social world. And, as a recent article by Paul Michael Garret argues, words matter. Portrayals of those in poverty as workshy wasters of money have become part of collective public perception. People in poverty are to blame for their own situation, or else they’re not really poor. The homeless man is either sitting there because he is too lazy to work, or maybe he doesn’t really need the money. In fact if we waited long enough perhaps we would see him pack up and drive off in his late model car on his way to his luxury home in the suburbs.
A significant part of my PhD thesis examines the way that those on benefits feel constituted by social discourses surrounding welfare and poverty. In other words, beneficiaries are aware of the assumptions that people make about them, and feel powerless to contest these. One example that came up often in my research was the way that Work and Income case managers constantly remind beneficiaries that Special Needs Grants cannot be used for the purchase of alcohol or cigarettes. Women I spoke to were offended by the implication that they would apply for a grant for food and then spend the money on something else. This is where language matters. Reminding the women not to spend their grants on alcohol and cigarettes might seem to be merely an enforcement of an administrative requirement, yet it is one loaded with meaning. Despite evidence to the contrary this reminder draws on a discursive interpretation of sole mothers that implies they spend their money on booze and fags instead of on their children.
A number of the women I spoke to in my research identified as Maori. It was clear that many of them also felt constrained by the association of ethnicity with welfare dependency. As recent cartoons by Nisbet casting Maori and Pacific characters in the lead roles of smoking, gambling welfare recipients, and Charlie Hebdo depicting young women kidnapped by Boko Haram as welfare queens demonstrate we don’t have to look far to find discourses of race intermingled with those of poverty. When such images and accounts become widely shared, they become social realities to be reckoned with. Once the concept of the drinking, smoking, cheating beneficiary has been introduced, it becomes harder to see beneficiaries in any other way, particularly when their skin in brown. By not continually challenging accounts like these they become the lense through which we view poverty and welfare.
So like I told my daughter: you don’t know anything about that man other than that he needs help, please don’t make up stories about him.