By Erica Zaiser
Despite resistance from conservatives, the Senate has recently extended unemployment benefits for Americans without jobs. Political commentator and actor Ben Stein weighed in on the issue of unemployment in his article in the The American Spectator. Stein sums up much of the conservative resistance to providing benefits for the unemployed by arguing that the recession has generally only hit those who, “have poor work habits and poor personalities” while hardworking Americans have been unaffected by joblessness because “they lacked prudence and lived in a dream world.” He argues that those who aren’t suffering the ill effects of the recession were saved because they were sensible with their savings and “productive workers with real skills and real ability to get along are… the last fired and the first hired.” Stein’s highly offensive statements to the nearly 15 million Americans who are unemployed exemplifies the well-researched psychology theory of system justification. According to system justification, people rationalize the status quo by adopting ideology or using stereotypes to reinforce that the system is just and legitimate. Stein argues that only those with poor work habits are unemployed and thus, they deserve it.
Past research on the topic has shown that people tend to use stereotypes to differentiate high and low status groups more when there is a threat present. Stein builds to his argument by discussing how the recession has hit particularly close to home for him with his friends and neighbors and that he is “seeing real desperation.” For Stein, the threat of a recession is so scary that he uses stereotypes about the unemployed to reinforce his just-world belief that bad things happen to bad people and good people (like him) will continue to do just fine. Unfortunately, Stein uses these attitudes not only to justify the state of the economy for himself but also serves to reinforce negative class stereotypes for all his readers.