Self-Stigmatizing Identity and Democratic Participation Among Low-Income Individuals
Political quiescence among low-income Americans is well documented but its causes are not well understood. This study explored the hypothesis that a self-stigmatized identity in low-income individuals is associated with a reluctance to participate in democratic activity. We engaged in participant/observation at nine mealtimes to analyze the discourse of guests of our local community “soup kitchen” and also administered a survey to investigate their perceptions of the poor, their beliefs about causes of poverty, and their knowledge of the demographics of recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. We then offered respondents to the survey the opportunity to sign a petition, write a letter, or both to communicate to their Congressional representatives their position on the question of whether SNAP program funding should be cut. We found that low-income guests with stigmatized attitudes toward the poor were significantly less likely to sign petitions or write letters. We also noted that distancing, embellishment, and embracement were prevalent among the discourse of these guests, all phenomena associated with the struggle to negotiate an identity of value in a stigmatized individual. Our findings suggest that a self-stigmatizing sense of identity is a barrier to participation in civic activity.