Public Policy Forum Blog

Back to the 80's?

The Pew Charitable Trusts released results from a new poll this week and have characterized the findings as an indicator that "support for government assistance to the disadvantaged [is] up to where it stood in the late 1980s..."

The new survey asked some questions that had previously been asked in 1987 and 1994:

Three core questions regularly asked in Pew surveys since 1987 were analyzed to track attitudes toward government assistance to the disadvantaged. In addition to asking about their views on government help to the needy even if it means going deeper into debt, respondents were read these statements: "The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep"; and "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." Respondents were asked if they completely agreed, mostly agreed, mostly disagreed or completely disagreed with each of the three statements after it was read.

Over half of this year's respondents (54%) agreed that the government should do more to help the needy, up from 41% in 1994 and about the same as in 1984 (53%). In addition, 69% agreed that the government should guarantee food and shelter to all Americans, up from 59% in 1994 and higher than in 1987 when 62% agreed. Over two-thirds (69%) agreed that it is the responsibility of the federal government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves, a 12 percentage point increase since 1994, though still less than in 1987. Overall, the percent of respondents who agreed with all three statements increased from 29% in 1994 to 41% in 2007. While the percent who disagreed with all three statements fell by nearly half, from 24% to 13%.

The gains appeared across all demographic groups except African-Americans, who had much higher support for government assistance in the '94 survey than did other demographic groups. According to Pew:

One of the largest increases occurred among the oldest Americans. Since 1994, the proportion of those 65 and older who agreed with the three propositions increased from 16% to 38%. These shifts narrowed the gap between old and young from 21 percentage points to 12 points. Support also grew disproportionately among whites (+13 points) compared with blacks, (+6 points), though a far greater share of blacks (61%) than whites (38%) consistently agreed. Among whites, the biggest increases occurred in the South, where support for the social safety net grew by 24 percentage points, from 24% to 48%.

What do these findings say about the success of welfare reform nationally, which came out of the Republican-led Congress of the 90's and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat? Among respondents in the bottom quartile of household income, overall support for the three statements had a 21-point increase, from 38% in 1994 to 59% today. If welfare reform is not meeting the needs of families in this lowest income group, greater support for increased government assistance is to be expected. However, support for a federal safety net also increased among the highest earning households. Favorable responses from those in the top quartile of household income for all three statements increased from 16% in 1994 to 29% in 2007. The breadth and depth of the change in attitudes across all demographic groups does seem to indicate a gap between opinion and policy.

Unfortunately, the Pew survey does not report findings by state. It would be interesting to see whether attitudes in Wisconsin, the birthplace of welfare reform, have changed in the past 13 years on this issue. What has changed in our state is the volume of people receiving assistance. In 1994 the average monthly total recipients of welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) numbered 226,197. In December 2006 the total recipients of welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF) in Wisconsin equaled 36,420. It seems unlikely that a change of that magnitude wouldn't impact public opinion in some way. Is Wisconsin more or less like the rest of the nation? Perhaps an argument could be made either way.

Anneliese Dickman