Commentary: Combating Negative Portrayals of “Welfare” Recipients in the Media
By: Sarah Biehl, Staff Attorney, Ohio Poverty Law Center
“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States
Most of us here at OPLC have been frustrated at many points over the past few years by the renewal of what I call “the war on poor people.” As poverty law advocates, this is something we fight against constantly – from opposing counsel who view our clients as insignificant, scummy, or otherwise useless human beings they can simply stomp all over, to policymakers and ideologues in the media who seek to demonize people simply because they happen to be poor. But it seems like it has gotten worse over the past few years, since the start of the economic recession and its aftermath.
There are probably lots of reasons that Americans are attracted to the idea that poor people have made bad choices, or done something wrong or evil. We need to believe that people in bad situations did something bad to put themselves there; otherwise, it could happen to any one of us, right? And our collective focus on and respect for hard work, individual responsibility, and family autonomy is strong. What seems to have been lost, however, is an acknowledgment of our collective vulnerability to bad luck, a struggling economy, and/or the inequity of access to education, resources, and jobs. We’re all really only one medical emergency away from bankruptcy. Poverty. Economic hardship. It really doesn’t matter what you call it.
This is why OPLC has been working to help found, design, and promote OhioSPEAKS, a project of Advocates for Ohio’s Future. Advocates for Ohio’s Future is a statewide coalition of poverty groups and advocates who work together to advance the causes of Ohio’s marginalized, poor, and struggling families. OPLC is a member of Advocates for Ohio’s Future, of course. The idea behind OhioSPEAKS is that we need a place to collect stories that tell the REAL story of what’s happening in Ohio – of how Ohio families are using public benefits like food stamps to stabilize their families, provide nutrition and resources to help their children grow up healthy, and create the best possible future for themselves. It sounds idealistic, and it is: we are actively trying to combat negative commentary about poor people with real stories, told by real people, not pundits, of what “welfare” actually does.
Fight negative perceptions, myths, falsities, and opinions with truth. Don’t just advocate for and speak out on behalf of people in poverty in Ohio – provide a platform so that they can speak for themselves. Share their stories and promote the good deeds that our “welfare” programs do every day. This is the power of OhioSPEAKS and of the people who live, work, and struggle every day in Ohio.
I hope you’ll join our fight against the war on poor people and check out OhioSPEAKS