First Advisor

Douglas G. Montgomery

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Urban Studies


Urban Studies and Planning




Welfare, Older people -- United States, Self-perception, Old age assistance -- United States



Physical Description

4, ix, 189 leaves 28 cm.


Policy-makers and others historically have assumed that welfare programs should give assistance to the poor and carry stigma. This attitude in part developed from the English Poor Laws tradition in which poverty was considered a negative condition. Labeling theory has often been used to explain the process of welfare stigmatization. Once an individual is labeled as a deviant, such as a welfare recipient, a self-fulfilling prophecy is initiated. Others perceive and respond to the individual as a deviant and the individual also internalized the stigma attached to such a role. The stigma attached to public dependency becomes an outcome of this labeling process. This study identifies the relationship between welfare stigma and the elderly and has three objectives. First, it challenges the usefulness of labeling theory in explaining the perception of welfare stigma among elderly recipients. Second, it analyzes why different levels of stigma are attached to different public assistance programs. Third, it examines why some recipients feel more stigmatized than others. Historically, the elderly poor have heen identified as the deserving poor and provided for under most social programs. Because of differential treatment between the elderly poor and the able-bodied poor, this study contends that these groups develop different self-images as welfare recipients. A single welfare image applied indiscriminately to both groups results in a poor fit. Instead of internalizing the negative image from the outside community, the elderly may have internalized the deserving poor image and subsequently perceive their welfare status as less stigmatized. Congress established the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in 1972 to replace the state-run Old Age Assistance (OAA) program. By placing SSI under the Social Security Administration, this new program seeks to provide additional income with less stigma to the aged poor. Data for this study come from two separate surveys: a local survey of 400 respondents and a national survey of 8600 respondents. The most important dependent variable in this study is welfare stigma. It is operationally defined by three indicators: 1) whether recipients feel bothered in receiving assistance; 2) whether recipients feel embarrassed to admit their welfare status; and 3) whether recipients perceive community disrespect for thier welfare status. Factor analysis enabled a welfare stigma index to be constructed using the above three items. The often cited welfare stigma was not substantiated by the data. Elderly recipients of both OOA and SSI had low stigma feelings. Labeling theory, while useful in explaining welfare stigma of other poor subgroups, is not applicable to the elderly. Significantly less stigma was found to be associated with SSI than with OAA. Other findings supporting the SSI program include: more recipients had confidence in the Social Security Administration than in local welfare agencies; more were satisfied with the performance of SSI than with OAA; more non-recipients expressed a willingness to use SSI. In contrast to findings of many studies, this study found that some demographic variables, such as education and socioeconomic status, were significantly related to stigma. This study has theoretical and practical significance. First, it demonstrates that labeling theory is not useful in explaining stigma perception of the elderly. Second, it provides important baseline data to judge future performance of SSI and other similar programs. The analysis calls for the need to design effective social programs on a universalistic rather than class-specific basis. Options for change in the income-maintenance programs in the 1980's are discussed and include an analysis of the two-tier proposal.


In Copyright. URI: This Item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. For other uses you need to obtain permission from the rights-holder(s).


Portland State University. Ph.D. Program in Urban Studies.

Persistent Identifier