Why Americans Love the Welfare State

While many pundits and political analysts claim that government measures to redistribute wealth downward are unpopular with the American public, this claim is inconsistent with the data. Decades of public opinion surveys have consistently shown that majorities of Americans support welfare state programs – not just “inclusive” programs from which middle-class Americans directly benefit such as Social Security, but also downwardly redistributive, “means-tested” programs for which one has to demonstrate poverty to be eligible, such as Supplemental Security Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Head Start. Majorities of Americans also support increased taxes on the rich, and have done so even prior to The Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street. Support for increased taxes on the rich might be explained by economic self-interest – but majority support for means-tested programs that only benefit the poor cannot. Why, I ask in this book project, do so many Americans love downwardly redistributive social welfare programs?

​I focus on an aspect of American public opinion that has often been overlooked: attitudes toward the poor and the rich. Existing research has made valuable contributions by examining such factors as: (a) principles (e.g., individualism, beliefs about equality); (b) economic self-interest; and (c) racial prejudice. But we know less about how Americans view class groups – even though many welfare state programs are explicitly designed to benefit certain class groups while increasing the burden on others. And we know even less about how, or even whether, American attitudes toward the poor and the rich inform policy opinion, let alone electoral behavior and political participation. Through a series of empirical tests, including the analysis of original surveys, nationally representative datasets over decades, and original experiments, I remedy this omission – and by doing so, I address the puzzling, long-standing pattern of majority American support for downwardly redistributive welfare state programs.