Scholars Meet to Challenge the Stigma of Dependency

Article excerpt

What is dependency? Why is it so feared and stigmatized? Anne Basting, director of the Center on Age and Community and associate professor of theater at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM), has been thinking about dependency, independence and interdependence for a long time. Creator of the TimeSlips creative expression program for people with dementia, Basting has campaigned for years to remove the stigma associated with frailty in old age-a stigma springing from the fact that frail elders no longer can live independently. No one, says Basting, is entirely independent, for most human beings must live in community with others, regardless of their age.

Basting and Andrea Westland, of UWM's Philosophy Department and Center for Women's Studies, recognized that others in American society are subject to stigmas similar to those associated with frail elders-especially low-income people, who are stigmatized when they need support from the welfare system, and people with disabilities, who are tainted by having what the late sociologist Erving Goffman famously called a spoiled social identity. Together, Basting and Westland organized an interdisciplinary symposium at the university in April, titled "In/Dependence: Disability, Welfare and Age," to examine the meanings of dependency and independence in American life.


Although those in aging, antipoverty and disability have made strides in fighting the stigma of dependency, they rarely have worked together, Basting noted. She and Westland developed the symposium believing that social scientists need to address dependency-related issues with scholars in the humanities. They added that practitioners need to talk with researchers about the implications of the deep cultural roots of fears about dependency among people whose lives are greatly affected by policies and practices in the welfare system.

The program was cosponsored by UWM's Center for 21 st Century Studies and the Center on Age and Community, and it drew participants from many areas of expertise. The day was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with additional funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sanford F. Schram, professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., opened the day with a talk titled "Uncaring Neoliberal Paternalism: A Compassionate Response to the Punitive Turn in Poverty Management." Schram, author of Welfare Discipline: Discourse, Governance and Globalization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), has devoted his career to studying and critiquing the social welfare system. Schram sharply criticizes the so-called neoliberal strain of social and political public policy, which often results in conservative programs.

Schram called into question the compassion of welfare reform, enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton a decade ago. Using data from a large-scale study of welfare policy and its effects on low-income people in Florida, Schram showed the results of what he calls the neoliberal paternalistic state: increased numbers of children in foster care; more people in prison, primarily for drug offenses; and greater emphasis on sanctioning people receiving public support, who don't live up to the expectations of the business model of the welfare system. Schram's data reveal that people of color living in politically conservative counties in Florida are at greatest risk there of being stigmatized, through sanctions-such as decreased financial aid to, as well as increased work enforcement on, the unemployed. …