Welfare stigma: have you changed your mind?

Unemployment, Employability and COVID19
23 October 2020

Being unemployed hurts. And it’s not just a lack of income that causes grief, those receiving welfare are often viewed negatively by society.

This stigma is often explained by the concept of ‘deservingness’.

“Unemployed people are typically seen as less deserving of Government support than other groups because they are viewed as responsible for their own plight, ungrateful, not in genuine need, or taking more than they give to society,” explains Dr Aino Suomi, an expert in the causes and consequences of welfare stigma.

The team from the ANU and the University of Melbourne involved in this project have previously used experimental studies to show that people in Australia and in the US have negative perceptions towards those receiving unemployment benefits in terms of their personality and employability.

Suomi and the team recently repeated this online study during the Australia-wide COVID-19 lockdown. They theorised that reliance on income support during the economic shock associated with COVID-19, which had generated the highest level of unemployment since the Great Depression, would be seen as out of the individual’s control and may therefore amplify perceptions of deservingness.

Were they right? Yes and no…

“We found that people receiving unemployment benefits were still perceived less favourably than those who are employed in terms of their personality characteristics and employability. This difference, however, was significantly reduced during the pandemic,” says Suomi.

While this result was expected, they were surprised to learn that study participants thought those who were in employment should feel higher rates of guilt and shame, compared to pre-COVID-19 perceptions.

“This might be indicative of ‘survivors’ guilt’ phenomena that we have seen in other studies during COVID-19 particularly in health care settings. Similarly, the participants thought the unemployed welfare recipients should experience lower levels of guilt and shame, compared to pre-pandemic, so what we’ve seen here is a reverse pattern related to these specific moral emotions” says Suomi.

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to have challenged people’s own sense of vulnerability and risk of unemployment. Thus altering their perceptions of those who are unemployed and receiving government support.

“We suggest the altered perceptions of ‘deservingness’ during COVID-19 is because unemployment in this context is less likely to be seen as indicative of personal failings or a result of one’s ‘own doing’,” says Suomi.

This research suggests that welfare stigma is ‘changeable’ or malleable to external circumstances. Given the negative implications of welfare stigma, it also provides an avenue to think of ways to lessen this impact.

“While we did not directly examine how the recent rapid changes in unemployment policy influenced perceptions in the COVID-19 sample, it is likely that making the unemployment benefits more accessible and generous may have removed some of its stigmatising features,” says Suomi.

“In the midst of a pandemic and mass unemployment, it seems obvious that those who are unemployed have little responsibility for their circumstances. But we know that even without a pandemic, this is generally the case - most people don’t want to be unemployed and need the payments to get by. Perhaps the current shock will help us reconsider our attitudes towards unemployment as well as some of the key policies in this area: the Australian welfare system is historically quite punitive towards those who most need support and assistance.”


**You can find out more about this research in the recently published paper: Unemployment, Employability and COVID19: How the Global Socioeconomic Shock Challenged Negative Perceptions Toward the Less Fortunate in the Australian Context, Frontiers in Psychology, by Aino Suomi1,2, Timothy P. Schofield3, and Peter Butterworth1,3.

1Research School of Population Health, The Australian National University
2Institute of Child Protection Studies, The Australian Catholic University
3Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic and Social Research, The University of Melbourne


By Liz Drummond.

Updated:  6 June 2024/Responsible Officer:  Director/Page Contact:  Executive Support Officer