Story by Heeu Millie Kim.
COLUMBIA — Putting labels on people different from oneself may seem like a natural thing to do. However, to those being labeled, social stigma can be perceived as developmental and avoidable.
In psychology, it’s human nature.
Bruce. D Bartholow, an MU psychology professor, says that as the income gap widens each year, low-income families are not only facing economic hardships but also social repercussions. Society uses visual markers such as clothing, material possessions and using government aid or charitable services to determine the social class of an individual. Every member of society, however, responds differently to people of different income levels.
“There is an initial automatic, spontaneous response,” said Bartholow, who specializes in social psychology. “And then if it is important to us as individuals to not display discrimination or prejudice, then we can overcome those initial responses – but it takes some stopping and thinking. You might feel compassion and positive emotions, but at the same time, those would be mixed with perhaps pity, maybe some disdain.”
Carrying an EBT card, for instance, shows an observer that the cardholder qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Angela Hirsch, community service director for Central Missouri Community Action, works to provide basic necessities and long-term benefits for low-income families. She related an experience of being stigmatized during a recent news conference with the Missouri Urban Journalism Workshop at MU.
“When I was 22 and serving in the Domestic Peace Corps, Volunteers In Service To America, I applied and qualified for food stamps. Once, I went to the grocery store and opened up my little checkbook with stamps and the cashier looked at me and said, ‘Oh, my God. Are you serious?’ That was the most humiliating moment of my life,” Hirsch recalled.
Positive responses may lead to the creation of food pantries, thrift stores and government-funded organizations, while negative responses may lead to stigmatization and further neglect. In other words, individuals who turn to aid for basic necessities are ‘marked’ by society as different.
“There are people that look down on individuals who come to trade items for things like socks,” said Connie Furlong, owner of Tiger Town Treasures Thrift Store. “People need things, not everyone is rich. You have to be understanding.”
Psychology and culture further explain a chain reaction that results from a social response to an individual. Culture in the United States, in general, assumes that people are responsible for their own hardships, Bartholow said. If individuals needing help understood how society perceived them, it might be difficult for them to seek out help. The social stigma associated with low-income individuals doesn’t easily disappear.
“It didn’t matter that I had a master’s degree or work history, they just saw my Medicaid card,” said Teresa Taylor-Williams, a former MUJW participant who was downsized from her media job after 16 years. She is now a grant officer at Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
According to Social Exclusion Knowledge Network, a group established under the World Health Organization Commission, social exclusion or the feeling of being disconnected from society because of differing political, economic and social factors is prevalent in society. Social exclusion may be another reaction to social responses and become an expanding problem with increasing numbers of families that require assistance.
Robert Wells, manager of The Salvation Army Thrift Store in Columbia, said he has seen social exclusion first-hand.
“When I drive up to a mall sometimes, I see people ignore homeless people. They just become a part of the scenery,” he said.
Society’s responses vary, but people can learn more to react positively.
“The motivation to bond with other people and to seek affiliation with others is the most fundamental motivation of human life,” Bartholow said. “Emotional pain of social rejection is experienced in the brain exactly the same way as physical pain. It literally hurts.”