The Federal Budget Debate: An Environmental Microaggression?

Political rhetoric and the attack on women and the poor.

Posted May 13, 2011

Microaggressions are typically associated with everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, insults and putdowns directed towards socially devalued group members. However, environmental microaggressions can reside in the "climate" of an institution or even in the broader society. For example, when women in the workplace enter a conference room where portraits of all the past male CEOs or board of directors are honorifically displayed, the message given is that women are less competent and that a glass ceiling exists in the company. Over the past few months, similar environmental microaggressions have been communicated via the guise of the debates surrounding federal and state budget woes. In particular, the issue of developing a federal budget was and continues to be complicated by several issues, including America's growing deficit and the proposed tactics for reducing the deficit. Now, this posting is not going to advocate for a particular tactic for reducing America's deficit, but instead will discuss the covert messages communicated by the debate surrounding proposed budget cuts, specifically concerning Planned Parenthood.

The debate surrounding Planned Parenthood's financial support from the federal government was one of the loudest debates in the media coverage concerning the federal budget. Regardless of how one feels ideologically about Planned Parenthood's activities, it's hard to believe that so much political and media energy was warranted on this issue, given that the amount of funding this organization receives is extremely low when compared to most other federal expenditures (a mere $363 million in 2008-09 according to some reports). So, was the debate over Planned Parenthood's funding really about the financial burden it places on tax paying Americans? Given the large focus equating Planned Parenthood with abortion services, my guess is no. Especially since none of the federal financial support that goes to Planned Parenthood funds abortions. The federal funding does support women's health services such as cancer screenings and STD testing. Providing abortions makes up a mere 3% of the organization's services; however, many antiabortionists, such as Senator John Kyl (R-Arizona), would like the general public to believe that abortions make up the majority of Planned Parenthood's activities. Thus, the budget debate focusing on the federal government's support of Planned Parenthood is likely ideological in nature, rather than fiscally motivated.

If there is anything that social psychology has taught us, it is that ideological and philosophical stances can create a sense of validation for one group, but invalidation for another group. In this case, women are being subjected to environmental microaggressions that treat them like lesser beings and reduces their self-determination concerning health issues. Using the budget crisis as a soapbox to spread ideological messages, often misinformation, about abortion and Planned Parenthood not only diverts America's attention from issues that have a larger impact on the federal budget, but the specific attack on Planned Parenthood is an attack on women who rely on these services for health maintenance. More specifically poor women are affected. Roughly 75% of Planned Parenthood's clients live at or near the poverty line, according to the Harvard Civil Rights, Civil Liberties Law Review.

This blatant disregard for the health of women is a major environmental microaggression. It is an environmental microaggression in that misleading information about the legal activities of Planned Parenthood, as well as the disproportionate financial burden that providing crucial health services to women in need puts on the federal budget, creates a hostile social climate for women. Women and the poor have a long tradition of being marginalized in our society. Arguably, women have made progress in their fight for equality; however, when politicians use political ideology as a motivation for defunding services that directly impact women it is easy to see how women, especially poor women, continue to be marginalized in our society. The spreading of misinformation about Planned Parenthood is an example of how politics and the media influence the cultural landscape of our society concerning women and the poor.

In this example, the political sphere is fostering a hostile climate towards women and the poor, which affects the treatment of women and the poor. In essence, we as individual members of society are subsequently influenced by the messages we receive from our climate. We are bombarded with messages that women and the poor are sapping our precious financial resources. If we do not question these messages, we will believe that women and the poor are indeed a burden on our society. These beliefs in turn influence how we interact with those around us, including women and the poor. If we internalize negative messages about particular groups of people, we will tend to treat them in prejudicial ways.

As our research on microaggressions indicates, we will most likely not be overtly prejudicial towards other groups of people, but will act on our prejudices in covert and subtle ways. Just like those politicians who used the budget to attack women's health in a covert way, we as individuals rationalize our mistreatment of people in subtle and covert ways. So, what can we do to address these environmental microaggressions? One thing we can do is question messages that flood the media and our inboxes concerning devalued social groups. Becoming a critical consumer of the information we receive on a daily basis is one way of recognizing and addressing the environmental microaggressions that in turn influence the way we treat one another.