Useless Eaters: Stigmatizing Sick People

concentration camp

In western countries, I see a frightening tendency to make sick people personally responsible for being ill. We are all bombarded with constant media messaging that anyone can stay healthy if they eat the right foods, exercise, and manage their stress levels. Meanwhile media pundits who demonize people on disability benefits for being lazy and unwilling to work.

I find all this vaguely reminiscent of Hitler’s “useless eater” policies of the 1930s. Hitler’s definition of a “useless eater” was a German who consumed resources without participating in production. Included in this category were tens of thousands of individuals with chronic physical or mental illness and physical and intellectual handicaps – who would be the first inmates in Nazi concentration camps.

Internalizing this pressure to be and appear well, people blame themselves if they become ill. This attitude is strongly reinforced by the constant TV ads that bombard us for cough and cold remedies that enable people to attend work with colds and even quite serious illnesses, such as bronchitis and the “flu.”

The pressure on kids to attend school or daycare when they’re sick – because their parents can’t afford to stay home with them – is a public health disaster. Sick kids in the classroom expose a lot of other kids, who go on to infect their families. Many children suffer one respiratory after another, a perfect set up for asthma (which is reaching epidemic proportions) and permanent lung disease.

Human Beings Get Sick

Surely it’s healthier and more humane and community-minded to accept that sickness is fundamental to the human condition. Epidemiological studies show that only 10% of illness is accounted for by lifestyle factors (including smoking). Other studies show that people who take time off recover faster and cope better with other life stresses.

38% of US Workers Have No Paid Sick Leave

Advice that sick people stay home and look after themselves is easy in most civilized countries (like New Zealand) owing to national laws requiring that employers provide workers paid sick and parental leave. The US isn’t one of them. Thirty-eight percent  of US workers have no paid sick leave.

There are no federal laws requiring American employers to provide paid sick leave. Only Connecticut, and a few cities (New York, Portland, San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, Newark, Tacoma, and Jersey City) have them. Even more disgusting ten states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — have enacted preemption bills that blocking cities and towns from passing paid sick leave legislation.

At present only California and Vermont have laws requiring employers to provide paid parental leave. So I guess working parents with sick kids are just out of luck.

The Campaign for Paid Sick Days

Just to be clear here. None of these cities and states have mandated paid sick leave because they were feeling kind and charitable. These laws were enacted because local activists fought for them. You won’t here about the Paid Sick Days for All Coalition on the six o’clock news. The corporate media wants you to believe the war is over and the good guys lost (to quote Leonard Cohen).

The war against corporate fascism ain’t over by a long shot. People can get get involved with the Paid Sick Days for All through their website:

photo credit: Rob Sheridan via photopin cc

3 thoughts on “Useless Eaters: Stigmatizing Sick People

  1. I’d never thought of this being ‘blamed’ for being sick, although I think I might be one of those you speak of. I always think that if we take care of ourselves, we’ll be ok. But as you say, that’s a bit of a denial that I’m sick sometimes still. I just watched a documentary on Hitler and crew’s unspeakable acts of cruelty regarding feeding only those that were useful….we should never forget, and we should realize that humanity has not come very far since then. Our psychology can still be dark, and corporations especially still do everything in their power to save a buck. I’m reading Small is Beautiful, which is all about treating people as profit rather than precious capital…it’s an older book, but I’ve learned a lot. I can recommend it if you’re interested.


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