Ideological Influences on Public Support for Assistance to Poor Families

By Groskind, Fred | Social Work, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Ideological Influences on Public Support for Assistance to Poor Families


Groskind, Fred, Social Work


Ideology, aside from its political meaning, generally implies "an empirical theory of cause and effect in the world, and a theory of the nature of man" (Lane, 1962, pp. 14-15). Welfare ideology in particular hinges on beliefs about the causes of poverty; on political attitudes toward government's role in society; and, especially in the United States, on racial attitudes.

Authors such as Dahl (1961), Lipset (1963), and Huntington (1981) have explored the nature of the American "creed," concluding that individualism, achievement orientation, political (but not economic) equality, and democracy are among the dominant elements. Huntington wrote that the values of the American creed are "basically antigovernment and antiauthority in character". Likewise, McClosky and Zaller (1984) held that "the nation's traditions of self-reliance, economic individualism, and hostility toward government are generally inhospitable to the idea of the welfare state and appear to have slowed its rise". Heclo (1986), on the other hand, suggested that Americans hold two views on social welfare simultaneously: welfare as self-sufficiency and welfare as mutual dependence, "two highly valued, unrelinquishable but still very different concepts of general welfare".

Lane (1986) provided yet another formulation by asserting that Americans largely prefer "market justice" to "political justice," thus allowing almost unlimited wealth and poverty without much political interference. Empirically, both Kluegel and Smith (1986) and Verba and Orren (1985) found that ideological beliefs better explain opinions on redistributive policies and on equality than do personal life circumstances or one's own income, education, and occupation. Racial attitudes have been implicated in welfare ideology because of the disproportionate percentage of African Americans receiving public assistance compared to white Americans. Kinder and Sears's (1981) concept of symbolic racism--whereby white people respond to issues such as welfare out of racial animosity rather than as an actual threat to their self-interest--may apply here (see Jackman & Muha, 1984; Schuman, Steeh, & Bobo, 1985; Sniderman & Hagen, 1985).

Many researchers have found evidence of the effects of self-interest on political opinions. That lower-income groups are generally more supportive of social welfare programs and spending has been proved from survey questions of the most general type ("the government should do more to improve conditions of poor people" |Erikson, Luttbeg, & Tedin, 1980, p. 154~) as well as on specific questions of how much support poor people deserve (Cook, 1979). Race has been found to be among the most powerful predictors of response to social welfare questions; African Americans consistently cluster at the liberal end of the spectrum on such questions.

Huber and Form (1973) asserted that higher-income Americans feel that poor people work less hard than rich people and that success and failure are more a result of personal factors than of structural ones. AuClaire (1984), studying the characteristics of respondents that explained opposition to welfare spending, found significant differences between lower- and upper-income respondents and also between white and African American respondents. These findings suggest that on specific issues, socioeconomic status distinctions become important.

The research presented here sought to test empirically the effects of ideological variables on reactions to the needs of poor families compared to the effects of socioeconomic variables used to measure self-interest.

Data and Methods

The National Opinion Research Center's 1986 General Social Survey included a supplementary set of 10 vignettes that described various kinds of families with incomes near or below the poverty line. Seven vignettes described young families, both mother-only and two-parent; three described elderly women living alone. …

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