Elite Discourse and American Public Opinion: The Case of Welfare Spending

By Schneider, Saundra K.; Jacoby, William G. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Elite Discourse and American Public Opinion: The Case of Welfare Spending


Schneider, Saundra K., Jacoby, William G., Political Research Quarterly


Popular support for American welfare policies dipped sharply during the mid-1990s. The purpose of this article is to determine why this pronounced, but temporary, shift in public opinion occurred. We use data from the CPS National Election Studies to examine several explanations for temporal variability in citizens' attitudes toward welfare spending. Our results show that these changes follow similar variations in media content. Individual-level opinion change was also based entirely upon political motivations (e.g., ideology and partisanship) rather than economic beliefs or racial attitudes. We argue that this provides evidence, admittedly somewhat indirect, that elite rhetoric guides and shapes mass opinions.

Popular support for the welfare system in the United States has never been very high (Feldman and Zaller 1992). Nevertheless, the American public has always accepted the idea that the government has the responsibility to provide for the basic needs of the poor and less fortunate elements of society (Gilens 1999). But, public opinion turned sharply against welfare policies during the mid-1990s. Then, it rebounded back to previous levels by 2000. The purpose of this article is to determine why this pronounced, but temporary, shift in public opinion occurred. Specifically, we use data from the CPS National Election Studies (NES) to examine several explanations for temporal variability in citizens' attitudes toward welfare spending. Our results show that these changes were based entirely upon political motivations, especially individuals' ideological and partisan reactions to the predominant tone of political discourse in the mid-1990s. We argue that this provides evidence, admittedly somewhat indirect, that elite rhetoric guides and shapes mass opinions.

BACKGROUND

Many analysts gauge public opinion on welfare by examining citizens' preferences toward government social spending (Cook and Barrett 1992; Gilens 1999). Apparently, people believe that the level of public funding for welfare programs is a clear, unambiguous indicator of governmental commitment toward those policy areas.1 In fact, Jacoby (1994) argues that the term "government spending" is, itself, synonymous with welfare spending in the public mind. Specifically, individual attitudes toward spending on programs that assist needy groups (e.g., the poor, Blacks, the homeless, children, etc.) exhibit a consistent internal structure.2 In contrast, spending attitudes on other governmental programs (e.g., education, AIDS research, environmental protection, etc.) show very little coherence; people react to non-welfare policies in a piecemeal, idiosyncratic manner.

Both Gilens (1999) and Cook and Barren (1994) show that popular support for welfare varies over time. But, their analyses only extend into the early 1990s. As a result, they do not pick up an interesting pattern that occurred shortly thereafter. From 1992 to 1996, public opinion turned against government spending across the board. By 2000, however, citizens' attitudes returned to their previous (i.e., circa 1992) levels. The "dip" in public support was particularly pronounced when it came to expenditures for welfare, Food Stamps, and the poor (Weaver 2000).

Table 1 provides the empirical evidence for this temporal pattern, showing data from the 1992, 1996, and 2000 CPS National Election Studies. In each of those years, the NES asked respondents whether federal spending should be increased, decreased, or kept about the same in each of a series of policy areas. The table entries summarize the responses for separate policies across the years. Specifically, the numbers indicate the proportion who favor increased spending minus the proportion who favor decreased spending in each area. The table shows all policies that were included in the NES interview schedule in all three years. In almost every area, preferences were less favorable toward spending in 1996 than they were in 1992. …

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Elite Discourse and American Public Opinion: The Case of Welfare Spending
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