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Soc Sci Med. 2014 Feb;103:76-83. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.06.033.

Pathologizing poverty: new forms of diagnosis, disability, and structural stigma under welfare reform.

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New York University, Departments of Anthropology and Psychiatry, New York, NY 10003, USA; Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, USA. Electronic address:
University of Pennsylvania, Departments of Anthropology and Family and Community Medicine, USA.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Department of Public Health and Environmentalism, USA.


In 1996 the U.S. severely restricted public support for low income people, ending "welfare as we know it." This led to dramatic increases in medicalized forms of support for indigent people, who increasingly rely on disability benefits justified by psychiatric diagnoses of chronic mental illness. We present case studies drawn from ethnographic data involving daily participant-observation between 2005 and 2012 in public clinics and impoverished neighborhoods in New York City, to describe the subjective experience of structural stigma imposed by the increasing medicalization of public support for the poor through a diagnosis of permanent mental disability. In some cases, disability benefits enable recipients to fulfill important social roles (sustaining a vulnerable household and promoting stable parenting). The status of family members who receive a monthly disability check improves within their kin and neighborhood-based networks, counterbalancing the felt stigma of being identified by doctors as "crazy". When a diagnosis of mental pathology becomes a valuable survival strategy constituting the basis for fulfillment of household responsibilities, stigmatizing processes are structurally altered. Through the decades, the stigmatized labels applied to the poor have shifted: from being a symptom of racial weakness, to the culture of poverty, and now to permanent medical pathology. The neoliberal bureaucratic requirement that the poor must repeatedly prove their "disabled" status through therapy and psychotropic medication appears to be generating a national and policy-maker discourse condemning SSI malingerers, resurrecting the 16th century specter of the "unworthy poor".


Addiction; Disability; Mental illness; Poverty; Stigma; Structure; U.S.A.; Welfare reform

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