Welfare recipients face varying levels of stigma: ANU study

16 Dec 2021

Those with mental disability and the unemployed are perceived more negatively than other groups who are entitled to welfare payments in Australia, according to a new study. 

The study looked at five key social groups that may be entitled to government support: the unemployed, people with a mental disability, people with a physical disability, single parents and the elderly. 

Co-lead author Dr Aino Suomi from The Australian National University (ANU) said these groups face different levels of stigma and negative stereotyping. 

"This stigma is worrying because it might mean people are less inclined to seek out support when they need it most," Dr Suomi said. 

"We were particularly interested in what drives these negative stereotypes. We found it has less to do with the payment itself and more to do with the characteristics of the recipients.  

"People with a physical and mental disability and the elderly were viewed similarly, whether they received support payments or not. The greatest stigma from receipt of welfare payments was for those of working age and without disability. 

"Single parents were generally perceived very positively. However, when reference was made to their receipt of government income support, they were viewed much more negatively."   

Dr Suomi believes if the public had more information about our welfare system and those it helps, it could help bust the "dole bludger" myth.  

"Most people who get that support really need it. There are so many hoops they have to jump through to even get to the stage of receiving support." 

In a separate study, the authors compared welfare stereotypes in Nordic countries versus those with more conservative social welfare systems like Poland and Germany, and more Liberal nations like the United States and New Zealand. 

Their findings support the theory that welfare recipients are seen as "less friendly and less deserving" in liberal welfare systems like Australia. However, the study found no difference in perceptions around competence of welfare recipients between welfare systems.  

"In Nordic countries support is considered a right of citizenship and payments are larger and more widely available," Dr Suomi said. 

"The Nordic system also seems better at preventing disadvantage by providing support to more people at an earlier stage. Policy can make a difference."  

The papers have been published in the International Journal of Social Welfare and the Journal of Applied Psychology.