Micro-aggressions and the welfare card

Concurrent with Putting Women at the Centre: A Policy Forum, we are running some accompanying blog posts.  In this post, Kristin Natalier uses the concept of micro-aggressions to explain how single mothers experience a devaluing of their personhood through their interactions with Centrelink personnel.

Researchers have shown that at the pointy end of the welfare state, where Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrats and citizens meet, socio-economically disadvantaged women describe interactions that are often rude, unresponsive to their circumstances, and distressing. These are more than a failure of communication or institutional systems: the concept of micro-aggressions suggests they are expressions of systemic power inequalities. 

Micro-aggressions were originally conceptualised with reference to race, but the concept has since been expanded to include the subtle forms of discrimination and devaluing directed against people who lack the socio-economic power of dominant groups in society. Today, micro-aggressions are most commonly discussed with reference to class, gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity. They are typically experienced as every day verbal, behavioural and environmental exchanges that convey denigrating messages to people who are members of marginalized groups. They occur in specific interactions but they express broader cultural assumptions about the characteristics and value of social groups. The people who perpetrate micro-aggressions may not consciously hold discriminatory attitudes; micro-aggressions can be the logical expression of discourses or institutional practices that allow for few other alternatives.  

Micro-aggressions can be hard for people to take seriously. In contrast to the physical violence or explicit discrimination disproportionately experienced by disadvantaged groups, their effects may seem minor. They may be expressed subtly, and so can be passed off as over-sensitivity or an expression of a victim mentality on the part of those groups most likely to be subject to them. However, their cumulative effects are no less destructive for being the result of what Maya Angelou has described as ‘small murders’ rather than ‘grand executions’. Over time, people’s identities as valuable individuals and citizens are eroded, silenced and invalidated. Micro-aggressions undermine mental health and a sense of wellbeing. More materially they can act as a barrier to people’s access to needed information, goods and services.

I suggest that applying the concept can be an important tool for taking seriously the reason and the effects of interactions that many women engaging with government services complain about. It allows us to interrogate whether interactions are not simply the result of poor training, stress or miscommunication (these can all contribute to individual instances), but are the manifestation of broader policy and social inequities.

There are three types of micro-aggressions. Micro-assaults are expressly and deliberately discriminatory and hurtful comments and actions, or those that are obviously referenced to stereotypes. For example, one single mother described her typical experiences of Centrelink workers:

There’s a stigma behind single mothers and that’s what I find, that there’s a stigma behind.  There’s that, you’re looked down upon... you know what I feel like?  I feel like I beggar.  I feel like a beggar who is asking for a handout, that’s how I feel and I’ve always been a worker my whole life. 

Micro-invalidations refer to exchanges that ignore or over-rule the lived realities and experiences of a person or a group.  The following quote comes from a single mother responding to welfare card requirements:

This welfare card thing, they don’t trust me to care for my kids: when my kids have noodles it’s because I spent the money on booze or something, not because there’s not enough money, they don’t give me enough.

Micro-insults are obviously rude or insulting interactions. Women read these interactions as expressions of worker disrespect for their personal experiences and the importance of their claims. Recounting an interaction with a Department of Human Services – Child Support worker, a single mother remembers:

She actually yelled at me.  She yelled at me. I’ve been abused because he [a former partner]  doesn’t pay [child support]  and so even the organisation that is supposed to be there to help you they are still making you feel like you’re the guilty party. And it just – it’s soul destroying. … I always come away feeling like I am of no use, I am completely worthless and that society looks down their nose at me.

Such accounts will be familiar to all of us who are, or who work with, socio-economically disadvantaged single mothers.  Micro-aggressions occur across diverse sites and are perpetrated by different workers but they share the characteristic of simultaneously being facilitated by and reinforcing gendered assumptions about single mothers and money. Specifically, women who are not economically independent are unproductive, have no claim on “others’” money, and cannot be trusted to claim or use that money appropriately. These assumptions align with the dominant cultural representations of single mothers as dependent and lazy, and/or aggressively ‘playing the system’ to claim money they have no right to. They have informed the demanding the punitive expectations of single mothers’ engagement in paid labour, and the message that a failure to do so reflects an individual failing. The concept of micro-aggressions allows us to make that link between individual workers’ expressions and the context that shapes the responses discursively and procedurally available to them.

Acknowledging this context requires us to look beyond worker-client interactions.  Improving frontline worker training or knowledge, addressing worker stress or imposing or withdrawing any given Key Performance Indicator may manage communication problems and mitigate pressures on frontline workers – which are in themselves good things.  To address the underlying processes we need to look further. For example:

1. Continue to challenge the policy and cultural valuing of paid labour as a primary indicator of productivity and moral and social value.

2. Meaningfully involving social groups in the development of policy that most directly impacts upon them. Micro-invalidations – the failure to acknowledge the lived reality of others – may be mitigated through acknowledging and building policy and processes that respond to these experiences.

3. Take seriously clients’ complaints and concerns about the micro-assaults and micro-insults directed towards them. Taken as a whole, they reflect a structured expression and reinforcing of socio-economic marginalization.