Altruism or Self-Interest? Social Spending and the Life Course

By Street, Debra; Cossman, Jeralynn Sittig | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Altruism or Self-Interest? Social Spending and the Life Course


Street, Debra, Cossman, Jeralynn Sittig, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The primacy of self-interested individuals is often regarded as the appropriate basis for US social spending decisions. One thread of this argument has advanced age-based self-interest and politically powerful elderly to explain why Social Security and Medicare have thrived in a policy environment that has seen retrenchment in other programs. We argue that crude self-interest and individual programs considered in isolation are insufficient to understand social spending preferences. We use General Social Survey data to contrast conventional and critical explanations for understanding the role of age in preferences for social spending. Factor analyses demonstrate that social spending preferences cluster into conceptually distinctive domains. This supports our argument that social spending orientations are more complex than conventional analyses of age-based preferences for single-issue discrete programs like education, welfare or Social Security suggest. Overemphasis on age group differences misconstrues the role of age in spending orientations and whether preferences are more plausibly labeled as self-interested or altruistic. Considering how age, period and cohorts differences impact social spending domains improves understanding of how the life course influences social spending preferences.

Keywords: aged-politics, social policy, altruism

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Since the mid-1970s, most domestic federal social spending in the United States has been under siege. Critics of government's role in providing public goods and services have argued that all social spending must be retrenched. Within this antistatist political climate (Quadagno and Street 2005), social welfare programs (such as the former Aid For Families with Dependent Children, now replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) targeted toward poor children and working age citizens have been particularly hard hit by retrenchment and budget cuts (Mink 1998; Marmor, Cook and Scher 1997; Estes, Linkins, and Binney 1996). During the same period and despite claims by some that the 'welfare state for the elderly' (Myles 1989) is unaffordable (Lamm 1999; Howe 1997; Peterson 1994) cuts to broad-based programs like Social Security and Medicare have been made only at the margins. Despite recent political rhetoric urging partial privatization of those programs (Quadagno and Street 2006), spending on these two age-based programs dwarfs federal spending on all other domestic social programs combined (United States House of Representatives 2004).

A relatively straightforward way to interpret recent social spending trajectories is to adopt a conventional analytic approach that asserts self-interest based on single issue politics-like support for public education or opposition to welfare--as the foundation for spending preferences (see Campbell 2002; MacManus 1996). Certainly, individuals can identify particular programs they favor or dislike, even when they are uncertain of program details and specifics (Kuklinski, Quirk, Schweider, and Rich 1998). A more holistic approach to understanding social spending preference structures, however, would account for generalized orientations towards types of social spending rather than assessing particular social programs in isolation (Kohli 1996). In contrast to assumptions that each program elicits a specific, isolated spending preference response, we argue that orientations towards social spending are more diffuse and generalized than age-based, single-issue analyses suggest (see also Street and Cossman 2006). People do not form preferences for social spending in a programmatic vacuum, but rather express support for related types of spending in a more general way. Consequently, considering spending domains representing similar social programs will be more useful than single-issue analyses for understanding citizens' orientations towards social spending.

Our research uses two analytic devices to explore the complex interrelationships among individuals' preferences for social spending, age, and other temporal influences. …

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