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June 12, 2012 8:40 AM What Explains Support for the Welfare State?

By Henry Farrell

Philip Rehm, Jacob Hacker and Mark Schlesinger have an article in the new American Political Science Review. There are two major approaches to explaining different levels of popular support in different countries for welfare state policies. One concentrates on class politics – the argument here is that people’s social class shapes their attitude to the welfare state (poorer people tend to like it; richer people, not so much). The second looks at exposure to risk – here, the likelihood that people will e.g. lose their jobs and have to reskill for another job is what explains varying levels of support (the more at risk you think that you are, the more likely it is that you will support the welfare state). Both approaches seem to have some explanatory power – what Rehm et al. do is to combine them, and look at the effects of their interaction. The results are striking – the more closely that income and risk are correlated with each other, so that poor people face higher risks of e.g. unemployment, and rich people face lower risks, the more polarizing welfare state politics will be, lowering overall public support for the welfare state. The intuition here is that much of the politics of the welfare state is driven by those who are cross-pressured – i.e. those who are either higher income but also exposed to higher risk, or lower income, and less exposed to risk.

The two groups lying off the diagonal are the “cross-pressured”—the insecure advantaged and secure disadvantaged. These citizens have cause to support the welfare state, but also cause to worry that they will pay more in taxes (the main concern of economically advantaged citizens) or receive less in benefits (the main concern of economically secure citizens). In both groups, however, risk exposure or limited income provides powerful motivation to support social programs. … In practice, risk and income are negatively correlated: Across all the countries and domains of economic risk that we examine, we find none in which economically advantaged citizens face greater risk of loss on average. This is a powerful reminder that the risk-buffering aspects of the welfare state tend to be reliably egalitarian, even when not explicitly defended on those terms. Yet, as we document shortly, the strength of this negative correlation varies greatly across countries and domains of social policy. It is this variance that gives us leverage for explaining differing patterns of support across nations and domains.
… the opinion distribution should change as disadvantage and insecurity shift from reinforcing to cross-cutting; that is, as the share of citizens who are cross-pressured increases. First, extreme opposition to social policies will be more limited, because there will be a smaller group of doubly advantaged citizens. Second, opinion regarding those policies will be less polarized as the relative size of the cross-pressured groups increases. These are the two clearest implications: When low income and high risk are less correlated, opposition to social policies will be more limited and opinion regarding those policies will be less polarized. … because of loss aversion and the progressive financing of social insurance, cross-pressured citizens do indeed generally support the welfare state quite strongly. With their opinions skewed toward support, most of the variation in average support is driven by what happens on the opposition side of the spectrum. As a consequence, we expect (and find) a very close correlation among average support, polarization, and the scope of intense opposition.
… In nations where disadvantage and insecurity are correlated more closely, strong opposition to welfare-state programs (in this case, unemployment insurance) is more common, opinion is more polarized, and overall public support is lower. The same is true across various domains of social policy within the United States. In domains where the distribution of the relevant economic risk closely correlates with household income (high risk, low income), the base of popular support for social provision is also generally narrower.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
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