Saturday, January 12, 2013

Entrenched Beliefs about Welfare Recipients: How They Developed and Why They Won't Change

During the political campaigning preceding the elections and even after their conclusion two months ago, I’ve seen dozens of posts, comments, reposted statements etc. that emphatically claim that those receiving welfare are lazy and are essentially being made dependents of the government. I’ve read posts equating these recipients to animals whom are fed repeatedly and will no longer look for food on their own. I’ve scrolled through many statements claiming that these individuals are making conscious choices to avoid work because it is easier and more lucrative to haul in all of the government assistance and to then live at a higher economic level than if they went to work each day.

In my current work as a psychologist and my graduate school job as a provider in the Community Mental Health System, I’ve known hundreds of individuals whom received governmental assistance. In the group homes for the severely developmentally disabled, I worked with dozens of folks who were severely autistic or Downs Syndrome, were often nonverbal, had other significant medical problems, and weren’t capable of independent functioning. Yet most days, we packed up a lunch for them, put them on a Dean Transportation Bus, and sent them off to work for the day at Peckham Industries putting tooth brushes together or other such tasks. It was then back to the group home where we waited to assist them through all the daily living skills most adults take for granted. And every week, we headed out grocery shopping with government subsidized money to buy food for these amazing individuals.

In my private practice work, of the hundreds of people I’ve worked with who’ve received government assistance, I’ve never once met one who was lazy or refusing to work so that they could receive benefits. In fact, nearly everybody WAS working, sometimes at more than one job, but not making quite enough money to provide things for their family or to meet some essential needs. A very large number of the recipients have been children of parents who work hard every day at jobs that don’t provide health insurance benefits for their families.

But I have a strong enough research and scientific background to know that conclusions can’t be drawn from a sample size of a few hundred, non-randomly selected or representative subjects, so I can’t assume that these individuals are characteristic of all those who draw government assistance. What challenges my patience, however, is that I believe that nearly everybody I’ve seen make comments or parrot what they’ve heard someone say on their favorite radio or talk show about welfare recipients being lazy, dependent, freeloaders who spend their money on drugs and alcohol, have rarely if ever met somebody who is actually receiving welfare.

As a psychologist there is a need to be open to alternative viewpoints, so I felt I had to consider the question of why all of these people believe as they do about welfare recipients. It is what they believe and they believe it strongly, and as I’ve stated in prior articles, until there is an understanding of different beliefs, it is difficult to work together on issues and find points of change or compromise. I did some fact checking in an effort to understand how this narrowly focused and ingrained belief about welfare recipients was generated.

When then President Bill Clinton and Congress passed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in 1996, it replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The goal was to reduce welfare dependency by requiring recipients to work to receive cash assistance and by limiting how long a family can remain on welfare. The number of recipients receiving welfare has declined by more than 50% since this enactment (Brookings Institution).

So were there in fact the stereotyped “welfare queens” who survived indefinitely with their kids through government assistance while AFDC existed? And if so, what percentage of recipients of AFDC did they comprise? I researched these questions and found differing opinions with insufficient methodologically sound scientific data to draw definitive conclusions about AFDC recipients. I do remember as a child of the 70s and 80s regularly hearing the stereotyped view of welfare recipients being lazy, minority individuals. I don’t remember there being any moon-faced, bigoted, bombast on the radio at the time regularly making statements about those on welfare, but yet this stereotyped view of AFDC recipients seemed to be pervasive.

I believe then, as I’ve mentioned in prior articles, that the posts, comments, and statements about welfare recipients that I noted in the first paragraph come from people who have always held and continue to hold onto viewpoints that they genuinely believe to be true because they have ALWAYS believed it to be true. As I’ve stated before, once we hold a belief about something, humans generally continue to collect “evidence” that supports what they believe and to discount and ignore any opposing evidence.

As such, when we hear our favorite radio or TV talk show host declaring rhetoric that we already believe, it feels like additional evidence for that viewpoint, even though it is just rhetoric and not grounded in factual data or evidence. When people see a reposted statement in some form in the social media that is some version of the declarations they’ve heard hundreds of times, they again add that as more evidence for what they already believe and become more entrenched in their views.

And I believe often, people don’t really generate the opportunity to discover or even want to consider opposing evidence to their beliefs. I was fortunate to encounter in my line of work hundreds of individuals receiving government assistance and quickly realized that my childhood beliefs were grossly misguided and inaccurate and not rooted in current data or evidence. I know for a fact that many of the people I see screaming the loudest about the lazy, dependent people on welfare have never or rarely met someone they knew to receive TANF, nor have they attempted to check factually based sites and sources of information discussing the true welfare recipients. They instead continue to listen to the people who say what they already believe and they parrot this information back out in some form.

For the sake of argument, even if there were stereotyped “welfare queens” in the AFDC recipient pool, TANF requirements that recipients participate in job training, demonstrate proof of efforts to find employment, and time limited benefit eligibility have made it incredibly difficult for the existence of many “welfare queens” for many years. Yet I hear essentially the same comments and declarations about those receiving TANF that I heard 30 years ago. I expect to hear this rhetoric in another 30 years because rigid belief systems don’t change unless people desire to consciously and open-mindedly consider alternative information to their beliefs, and I rarely see this desire.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook Shootings: Meaningful Dialogue on Reducing Deaths by Firearms in America

In observing the reactions, articles, blogs, and posts from many individuals and groups in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, I’m again seeing the propagation of the typical polarizing rhetoric that keeps those with differing beliefs from working together toward a common goal. I’ve seen the staunch gun control advocates immediately scream for tighter gun control laws and the gun rights advocates immediately scream that guns aren‘t the problem and that nobody had better try to take their guns away. Instead of having meaningful dialogue, both sides further entrench themselves in their rigid, dogmatic beliefs and we lose an opportunity, again, to possibly make some beneficial changes in our country.

As has been the case with the other recent mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, I’ve thought that perhaps finally most people or groups could come together and make an honest evaluation, based on hard facts and evidence, of possible changes we could consider as a nation to try to decrease the frequency of the over 10,000 killings we had in our country by firearms in 2011. Is there anybody of sound mental health who would say that this number is acceptable? But instead, as I noted in the first paragraph, too many people are automatically reacting to protect or profess their previously held beliefs, which results in the walls going up on both sides and the prevention of working together on a common goal.

I don’t know what the realistic answer is to drastically reduce the frequency of deaths by firearms in our country. Since the shootings last week, I’ve attempted to do some data gathering and to look at the statistics, and even that is challenging because it appears that the “facts” being presented are sometimes selected from other possible “facts” to support an agenda.

Arguments for addressing weapon related violence that I’ve seen made by groups and individuals in the past few days have included blaming the media for sensationalizing such tragedies, calling for increased support of and access to mental health services, eliminating the availability of assault and semiautomatic weapons, increasing regulations and requirements that must be met before an individual can purchase a gun, and increasing gun ownership as a means for deterring crimes. I’ve also heard people decry what they call a culture of guns and violence in our country and put blame on the entertainment industry that produces violent video games, television shows, and movies.

A call for a meaningful dialogue to consider these and other options for reducing gun violence should be just that, an opportunity to gather hard evidence and to work together to achieve a goal that everybody should support. Other countries are clearly able to achieve this objective. I’ve read that Japan, a country that has some of the tightest gun control laws in the world, had 10 gun related killings in an entire year, and that Switzerland, a country that has similar gun ownership rates to that of the United States, also has extremely small numbers of firearm related killings. Clearly it is possible to achieve a goal of minimal gun related deaths in a civilized country, and it is a ridiculous argument, although I’ve heard it several times since last week‘s shootings, that it is too late to do anything in our country and that the already high gun ownership rate makes efforts to decrease gun violence pointless.

It seems that we have worked together to tackle other significant problems in our country that we’ve deemed excessive or unacceptable. People have pointed out recently that there was enough agreement several decades ago that AIDS had the potential to medically devastate huge numbers of people that the funding and education were provided to develop a treatment and to effect behavioral changes that have worked well enough to keep AIDS out of the news for years. We also continue doggedly to work toward cancer cures and don’t consider ceasing this work with the thought that it is too late or hopeless or that we shouldn’t bother just because many people will continue to die until cures are found.

One significant difference between developing effective changes to address these medical/health crises versus addressing changes that could be made to reduce gun violence is that the health concerns don’t pull the same polarizing beliefs and protestations from the populace, and therefore there isn‘t the resultant avoidance of the issue by politicians who don‘t want to tread anywhere near that hornet‘s nest of differing sentiment. Those vocal individuals and groups whom are closer to the dogmatic polar ends of the continuum in their gun related beliefs have immediately responded to the Sandy Hook and other mass shootings screaming their rigid beliefs and party line propaganda, which simply fans the flames of emotion for anyone on the other side of the continuum. People then dig in behind their walls of belief and fire their views at the other side, where it simply hits that wall and is volleyed back in similar fashion, and the politicians, at least at the national level, get as far out of the way as possible.

Any reasonable individual, no matter where they fall in their beliefs on guns and ways to decrease gun related deaths in this country, should be able to start from the point of agreement that over 10,000 deaths in a year from firearms is too many. Can we agree on that? Can we be open to the possibility that those on both sides of the belief continuum have something to contribute to a discussion about how to reduce those deaths? Can we work toward this goal even if it means that we have to budge a little bit from our points of entrenchment or if some politicians have to risk the ire of some vocal constituents? I don’t know if it’s a realistic goal to completely eliminate mass shootings or reduce the rate of gun related deaths in America to those of other countries, but doubts of the likelihood of success shouldn’t prevent us from having meaningful dialogue to consider ways we could try to make that happen. Now is the time for those discussions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why the division between opposing political beliefs will never be narrowed: A psychological perspective

I’ve discussed in past articles how belief systems develop and how those create and maintain the stress, anxiety, depression, and maladaptive behaviors that often bring people to therapy (Evidence on Your Radar Screen; Changing the Balance of Evidence). Beginning in early childhood our personalities, life experiences, and messages that we repeatedly hear begin to form into habitual ways of perceiving things that happen in our life. As those belief systems develop, people tend to automatically collect “evidence” that supports what they believe and to discount or ignore evidence to the contrary.

I will put evidence in quotes throughout this article, because often it isn’t true or factual scientific evidence that people collect, even though it feels that way. As a brief example, consider a person who is insecure and who holds a belief system filled with self-doubt. They pass a coworker in the hall and the coworker doesn’t look up or acknowledge them. Based on this person’s insecure belief system, this can easily become a piece of “evidence” that the other person must be angry at them, or that they must have done something wrong, or maybe that the coworker doesn’t really like them, just as they always feared. So this gets added to the pile of evidence that supports the insecurities and it strengthens those self-doubts even further, even though there clearly could be 10 much more factual reasons for why the coworker didn’t look up and say hi. Over time, these belief systems become deeply ingrained and are very difficult to change, even when the person comes to therapy wanting to work on changing their belief systems.

Political belief systems develop in the same manner in that our personalities, life experiences, and messages we hear form a set of beliefs that we then tend to hold as true, as facts. Over time, we collect “evidence” that supports what we already believe and again, ignore possible evidence to the contrary, and our habitual belief grows stronger and stronger, propped up by increasing examples that seem to confirm it.

The strategists and marketing experts for the political parties understand this and clearly grasp what some of those central beliefs are, and they provide us “evidence” for these belief systems. They tell us those resonating messages over and over again that hit us emotionally and that hit the mark for what we already believe, and we snap it up as further proof of our beliefs. What we are told doesn’t even have to be rooted in scientific fact or sometimes, even be particularly logical, because belief systems often aren’t scientific or logical. It feels true because we have believed it for so long and found so much “evidence” to support it, so a politician or radio talk show or television host can easily add to the strength of our beliefs by feeding us messages without worrying about whether that message is even factual or supportable.

There are some people who check facts and attempt to keep an open mind free of ingrained beliefs when they assess the policies of all the political parties, some people who are fairly indifferent and disconnected from politics for a variety of reasons, and some people who feel passionately at different levels about what they believe. It is the most challenging for those passionate people to consider alternatives to their beliefs or to close the divide. They don’t really WANT to! They believe that they are correct in their beliefs, that their viewpoint is the right one and that the other parties’ viewpoint is the wrong one.

These beliefs are extremely important to us, they say something about us, and they are worth fighting for regardless of whether we create more walls between us and them or widen that division. I’ve seen it play out in the social media the last few months, as people proclaim their rightness and/or the other person’s wrongness both subtly and overtly. People feel passionately enough about their beliefs that making the subtle or overt proclamations appears to be worth losing friendships or creating potentially unfixable divides.

And so the political candidates, the attacking political commercials, and our own pictures and statements in the social media results in the other side putting up their walls a little higher, in becoming a little more entrenched in their own beliefs, and that divide widens. Naturally this happens because many people, when feeling attacked or feeling that their passionate beliefs are threatened, attack back directly or simple entrench themselves passively but more firmly in anger behind their wall with the people that believe as they do.

Many people pay lip service to wanting to close that divide and come together, but what we really want is for the other side to see the light, to just get the correctness of our beliefs and come on over to our side. As long as people stand righteously and rigidly in their correctness, that gap isn’t going to be closed. But it’s difficult not to stand firmly where we are, because we are right in our beliefs aren’t we? We’ve had them for a very long time, collected a lot of “evidence” for them over the years, and had those beliefs supported and reinforced through the messages we've heard from our favorite politicians or talk show hosts.  This makes it difficult, if not impossible to make any movement off of our position where we can open mindedly consider counter evidence or an alternative belief system.

And as I stated, shifting those ingrained beliefs is an incredibly challenging process that takes effort and energy, even when clients want to work on that. Those people behind the divide, behind their walls of rightness, often don’t have an interest in moving off of their positions or in hearing why someone behind the other wall believes a counter view just as staunchly. It doesn’t appear that very many politicians have a genuine interest in doing that either. And because more than enough politicians will continue to take a contentious approach, and more than enough people will maintain their belief systems in the manner I’ve described, the division in political beliefs and practices will continue, and the benefits of working cooperatively will likely not be seen.