Social welfare policies are among the most salient and potentially controversial policies today. In virtually all western democracies, public support for the social safety net has changed significantly over time. Recently, the immigration debate in many western European countries has led to renewed interest in public attitudes toward welfare programs. Scholars have found that when individuals believe that their own ability to benefit from welfare is threatened by rising immigration, they become less supportive of expanding both the scope of social programs and government spending, sometimes even to their own personal detriment (Blomberg et al. 2012; Mau and Burkhardt 2009). In the U.S., support for welfare fluctuates as well – though it has never been exceedingly strong to begin with.

A recent line of research examines whether poor economic times lead individuals to “reach out” and become more supportive of welfare or “pull in” and reduce their support (Kam and Nam 2008), finding ultimately that economic downturns are associated with people becoming more supportive of social welfare programs. We posit, however, that there is an additional critical dimension to consider – that the influence of risk exposure on welfare support is actually conditional on an individual’s propensity to tolerate risk (i.e. risk orientation). Risk orientation, simply, is the extent to which people tolerate uncertain conditions. Risk averse individuals seek to minimize uncertainty, while the risk acceptant tolerate it relatively well.

In our new JPP paper, we examine how perceptions of individual risk exposure – that is, the extent to which an individual believes that he or she has encountered financial loss – interact with one’s risk orientation to shape support for increased government spending on welfare, regardless of one’s party identification or ideology. Using a nationally representative survey of adults in the U.S., we find that for risk averse individuals, an increase in perceived risk exposure is associated with an increase in welfare support. However, for those that are risk acceptant, the same increase in risk exposure appears to strongly reduce welfare support.

Risk averse individuals, it turns out, are quick to believe that “it could happen to them” (“it” being a need to rely on the social safety net). In contrast, risk acceptant individuals are, on average, economically optimistic (Grable 2000; Soroka, Stecula, and Wlezien 2015). So, even when a risk acceptant individual believes that they have been exposed to financial risk, they are unlikely to believe that they will need to rely on welfare to make ends meet. Thus, when risk acceptant individuals perceive exposure to financial risk, they become less supportive of a costly program that they do not believe will benefit them; whereas risk averse individuals are happy to accept an additional financial hit via higher taxes and to see more of their tax dollars going to increased welfare spending in order to reduce uncertainty.

In short, it is not quite enough to ask whether adverse social or economic conditions make people more or less supportive of the social safety net. Rather, we must also consider an individual’s propensity to tolerate said social or economic risk. This finding is especially important given that policy narratives can be framed in terms of potential gains versus losses, which may make risk aversion or risk acceptance more immediately salient; and thus may strategically shape public support for social welfare programs.

Kerri Milita, Assistant Professor, Illinois State University

– The authors’ Journal of Public Policy article is available free of charge until the end of November 2019.

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