Why Do We Blame the Poor?

The way we frame issues can make all the difference.

A woman is being evicted from her property. She is a single mother and has 5 young children. She lives in subsidized housing. She is facing imminent eviction because her son, who no longer lives with her, was caught engaging in drug-related activity near the property.

By the letter of the law, she breached the terms of her lease, and the eviction is legal. The landlord’s attorneys argue that the government should not be providing housing to criminals, to those in the population who do not want to follow the rules. The court rules against the woman. The judgment against her means that she has lost all future ability to live in subsidized housing, and her family may soon be homeless.

How do we justify stories like this? How do we accept the legitimacy of the law when it can have such perverse effects at an individual human level?

One way is through framing. When we place blame on individuals we are more likely to support punishing them, avoid looking at the context that placed those individuals in those circumstances, and attribute their actions to bad or evil or lazy individual personalities instead of focusing on the context that may place them in unforgiving situations.

A case study of conservative media’s treatment of programs for the poor perfectly illustrates the rampant use of these frames. We begin by framing government services not as programs serving the public good, but as a way for people too lazy to work to receive a handout. As Fox News explains, “a lot of people are lazy and [these programs] allow people to become lazier.”

In the words of Jon Stewart: “Fox news has created this narrative that ties people’s poverty to their own lack of virtue, and says that programs created to serve the impoverished are in fact the reason that those are still impoverished. If they weren’t such [bad] people, they wouldn’t be poor, and those food stamps are just making them [worse].”

Some critics create carve-outs for the “deserving poor,” but argue that this group is an insignificant minority of those served by the programs and do not justify the continuation of these supports. Admittedly, have we not all heard of the surfer who infamously explains that he surfs all day because the government pays him not to work. Fox exclaims: “he’s the representative of millions of Americans!” However, when corporate leaders are caught committing fraud, and systematically avoiding liability and accountability, we play that off as the actions of a few bad apples. Our logical conclusion then isn’t to critique and argue for an end to the system, but rather to focus on punishing that one person.

For, even very similar actions can be framed differently in order to legitimize one group’s behaviors and demonize the other’s. For example, when the poor take advantage of welfare and other public programs, they have been described as freeloaders, parasites, individuals draining the system. However, when the rich take advantage of tax loopholes, it is seen as a completely legal action – in fact, even as an acceptable response to bad legislation or a method of the financially successful. As one commentator notes – “if they’re doing it legally, what is wrong with it?” The fact is, exploiting government largesse, while reprehensive and morally corrupting for an individual, is expected of corporations and corporate leaders.

Why do we create and fail to critique these perceptions? The fact is that “humans crave justice … [For,] salient suffering or inequalities activate an injustice dissonance [and we choose to] alleviate that dissonance not by addressing the injustice, but by creating an illusion of justice through assumptions, arguments or stereotypes about the blameworthiness of the victim.” In the end, “it is not justice that we crave so much as the perception of justice. And that craving can often be satisfied far more easily by changing our perception of the victims than by acknowledging and addressing the underlying unfairness.” (Hanson & Hanson, “Blame-Frame”).

After all, we’ve grown up being told that bad people do bad things, good people do good things, and all people get what they deserve.
Until we change our perceptions of the marginalized and ignore the situations that marginalize segments of the populations, it will be impossible to build large-scale movements in support of more equitable and just societies. Framing has helped justify and legitimize inequality in this country. But we can change these frames.