Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Two Faces of Government Spending

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Two Faces of Government Spending

Article excerpt

Scholars have known for some time that attitudes toward federal spending on welfare are shaped by racial antipathies. Are attitudes toward spending on nonwelfare social programs similarly grounded? This article explores the dimensionality of spending attitudes and the extent to which they are rooted in stereotypical beliefs about blacks. Analysis of data from the 1992, 1996, and 2000 National Election Studies demonstrates that whites' attitudes toward welfare spending and social spending are structured in two-dimensional terms and that stereotypical beliefs about the work ethic of blacks systematically constrain their welfare attitudes and do not affect attitudes toward other social programs.

Keywords: government spending; racial stereotypes; social welfare attitudes

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The question of how much the federal government should spend on programs to help the needy represents one of the most enduring issues on the domestic policy agenda of the United States. From the earliest days of the Republic down to the present time, the answer to this question has depended in part on what Americans believe about the causes of poverty (Cook and Barrett 1992; Katz 1989). If people are seen as victims of economic forces beyond their control, then the typical citizen believes they deserve some form of public aid to help them get back on their feet. But if economic distress results from laziness or a lack of moral fiber, the typical citizen believes that such individuals are not truly needy and hence do not deserve government assistance. This naturally raises the question of what factors lead Americans to distinguish between those who deserve government assistance and those who do not.

A number of important studies center on the role racial predispositions play in shaping white opinion in this domain (Gilens 1996; Jacoby 1994; Kinder and Sanders 1996; Sears and Citrin 1985), but few works systematically explore the extent to which the influence of racial stereotypes is confined to opinion on welfare programs that are presumed to benefit the undeserving poor or extends more broadly to color attitudes toward all forms of social welfare spending. This article advances our understanding of public opinion on social spending by demonstrating that welfare-spending attitudes are psychologically distinct from attitudes toward other forms of social spending and that the former alone are race coded in the minds of white citizens.

The article proceeds as follows. First, I draw on several theoretical and empirical perspectives to argue that public discourse portrays welfare recipients as largely black and mostly undeserving of public aid, whereas the beneficiaries of less controversial social programs are represented as less black and more deserving of help. In light of this, I posit that attitudes toward welfare spending and social spending are distinct phenomena because they are subject to differential degrees of stereotypical thinking in the minds of whites. Second, I use data from the 1992, 1996, and 2000 National Election Study surveys to demonstrate that white attitudes toward spending on welfare and on other safety net programs are structured in two-dimensional terms rather than one-dimensional terms.1 Next, I show that stereotypical beliefs about the work ethic of African Americans systematically affect welfare spending opinion and fail to affect opinion on other social spending. Last, I consider the implications these findings have for understanding the nexus of race, government assistance, and American public opinion.


Public opinion on government spending has attracted scholarly attention for many years. At the aggregate level, studies reveal that large pluralities of the electorate favor spending more on virtually all social welfare programs (Bennett and Bennett 1990; Smith 1987). The only exceptions to this pattern of public largesse are food stamps and welfare, as those favoring spending cuts easily exceed those favoring rises. …

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