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Public Support for Social Welfare Programs, 1984-1996: Description and Explanation


  • Fay Lomax Cook
  • Jason Barabas


Using data from the National Election Study (NES) surveys in the seven election years between 1984 and 1996, this paper examines stability and change in both the levels of support and the explanations for support of two social welfare programs--Social Security and Food Stamps. An explanatory model incorporating personal dispositions of respondents (ideology, party identification, and retrospective economic assessments), attributions about program recipients (warmth of feelings toward people on welfare, blacks, and poor people for Food Stamps, and warmth of feelings towards the elderly in the case of Social Security), as well as the demographic characteristics of respondents was used to explain the variance in support. Despite the often heated rhetoric about the political legitimacy of social welfare programs over the last decade, a majority of the public favors maintaining or increasing spending for each program in every year; the difference is that whereas only a few (less than 7 percent) ever want to cut spending for Social Security, a much larger group want to cut spending for Food Stamps (about a third in most years up to 1992 but rising significantly in 1994 and 1996). The data show overwhelming stability in support for Social Security over the twelve-year period; less stability in support for Food Stamps, though the opinion changes in the 1990s are a rational response to the period's political and economic climate; and a surprising amount of stability in the underlying structure of support predictors for both Social Security and Food Stamps.

Suggested Citation

  • Fay Lomax Cook & Jason Barabas, "undated". "Public Support for Social Welfare Programs, 1984-1996: Description and Explanation," IPR working papers 97-10, Institute for Policy Resarch at Northwestern University.
  • Handle: RePEc:wop:nwuipr:97-10

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