Public welfare humiliation only works if we are shamed into complicity

Public welfare humiliation only works if we are shamed into complicity

This week, I have been thinking a lot about shame.

In the puritanical New England traditions of many of our forebears, to shame a person before their community was one of the harshest punishments one could administer. Maine author Nathaniel Hawthorne captured the gravity of publicly shaming someone in his classic book The Scarlet Letter, whose protagonist, Hester Prynn, is forced to wear the infamous red “A” for adultery after being accused of having a child out of wedlock by her fellow Bostonians.

The effectiveness of public humiliation relied not only on publicizing the offense, but also its universal condemnation from the community. Today, many of us may scoff at the idea of making a crime out of being a single mother (although we probably shouldn’t), but the politics of shaming – who we shame and what we find shameful – remains a very real issue.

Over the past few days, Lewiston mayor Bob Macdonald has made national news by suggesting that Maine should publicly disclose the names and addresses of individuals who receive General Assistance in an effort to make folks “think twice about applying for welfare.”

Key to this Scarlet Letter approach, though, is convincing the community that to accept welfare assistance in an era of staggering inequality, turmoil, and systemic bias is something that is in fact worthy of shame and humiliation. Otherwise, Macdonald’s list is just a bunch of (probably unconstitutionally-disclosed) names and addresses.

Conservative attempts to shame the poor, however, have been distressingly successful, to the point where many on the Left concede that the battle of public perception over welfare is over, and we lost. Some go so far as to defend more popular public assistance programs like Medicare, Social Security, or Pell Grants as “not welfare” in an effort to keep support strong for those programs.

When we start allowing our opponents to control our definitions, we have already lost the debate. By attempting to publicly shame those on welfare, and by narrowly defining welfare as popular conservative punching-bags General Assistance, TANF, or food stamps, Mayor Macdonald is making the implicit argument that welfare is in fact shameful. It’s not. Welfare exists to give opportunity where it may not exist, to feed those who may otherwise go hungry, and to save lives that may be otherwise lost in our market-based medical system.

In fighting against these attempts to shame us into silence or concession, we must remember who we are fighting for.

Take the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, a favorite target of ire for both Mcdonald and Governor LePage. What would we see if we shone light on the people using this program? We would see (as many examinations of who accesses these programs have made clear) mothers working to support their children through crippling economic hardship after leaving abusive relationships, low-wage workers trying to pull themselves out of poverty, and individuals with disabilities working to live with independence.

Mr. Macdonald would have us turn our backs on those who need us the most. Shame on us if we let him get away with it.

Image: The Scarlet Letter (1926)

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 31 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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