May 2, 2007

Surge in Support for Social Safety Net

Sympathy for the Poor and for Government Aid Programs Returns to 1980s Levels

by Richard Morin and Shawn Neidorf

Support for government programs to help disadvantaged Americans, as well as sympathy for the plight of the poor, have surged since 1994 and returned to levels last seen in 1990 prior to welfare reform, with gains occurring among virtually every major social, political and demographic group.

Some of the biggest increases in concern for the needy have come from unexpected sources: political conservatives, Southern whites and older Americans. For example, in 1993, more than a quarter (28%) of self-described conservatives agreed with the statement, “The government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt.” Today, 48% of all conservatives are willing to accept deficit spending to help those who cannot help themselves.

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At the same time, the proportion of Americans who sympathize with the plight of the nation’s poor also has increased since 1994, rising in virtual lockstep with changing views on the need to expand the social safety net. Whites in particular seem to have had a change of heart — though that sentiment still fails to extend to a clear majority of whites: Today, 49% of whites say that the poor “have it hard,” up from just 35% in 1994. The share of whites who say the poor “have it easy” because of government assistance programs has meanwhile dropped from 56% to 37%.

Taken together, these changes have pushed support for government assistance to the disadvantaged up to where it stood in the late 1980s, well before Republicans won control of Congress in 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.

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Overall, the proportion of those agreeing with each statement has increased since 1994, the year Republicans gained control of Congress and, ultimately with support from President Clinton, began overhauling the federal welfare system. A majority of Americans (54%) now agree the government should do more to help the needy. That’s up from 41% in 1994 but virtually identical to the 53% of the public who offered that view in 1987. Similarly, 69% agree that the government should guarantee food and shelter to all Americans, up from 59% in 1994 and seven percentage points higher than in 1987. About seven-in-10 (69%) endorse the idea that it is the responsibility of the federal government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. That’s a 12-percentage-point increase since 1994, though the proportion that now approves is slightly smaller than in 1987.

But perhaps even more significantly, the proportion of Americans who agreed with all three statements has increased from 29% in 1994 to 41% in 2007. At the same time, those who consistently disagreed with all three propositions fell by nearly half, from 24% to 13%.

America’s renewed enthusiasm for an enhanced government safety net occurred broadly across every major demographic, economic and political group. In some instances, these gains were both large and somewhat surprising.

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%.

Support for expanding the social safety net also increased among the wealthiest Americans — those whose family incomes put them in the top quarter of earners in the country. Among this group, the proportion agreeing with all three statements rose from 16% in 1994 to 29% in 2007. That gain pales, however, in comparison to the 21-point increase among those in the bottom income quarter, from 38% in 1994 to 59% today. Double the proportion of the poor than of the more affluent (59% v. 29%) agree with all three statements about the social safety net.

Support for a stronger federal safety net has increased both among Republicans (+9) as well as Democrats (+14) and independents (+15). At the same time, the gap in support levels between the GOP and Democrats has increased from 25 to 30 points.

These increases have come at a time of growing public sympathy for the plight of the poor. When asked in December 2005 whether “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything”, or whether “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently”, 51% of people said the poor have it hard; 35% said they had it easy. That’s almost a complete reversal of opinion from July 1994, when 53% of people said the poor had it easy, and 39% said the poor had hard lives. The question was not asked in January 2007.

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As with support for an expanded government safety net, rising empathy for the poor is seen broadly across demographic groups, with the notable exception of blacks, who held virtually the same highly sympathetic opinions toward the poor in both 1994 and 2005. For example, 64% of blacks said the poor have it hard in 2005. In 1994, 65% of blacks said the poor have hard lives. Whites, meanwhile, have had a major change of heart about the poor. In 1994, only 35% of whites said the poor have hard lives. In 2005, 49% of whites said the poor have it hard.

Overall, most of the change in various groups’ opinions about the poor happened at the ends of the attitude spectrum — among those who felt strongly that the poor had easy lives or felt strongly that they had hard lives. Overall, the percentage of people who said they felt strongly that the poor had easy lives fell from 37% in 1994 to 23% in 2005. Conversely, the percentage of people who said they felt strongly that the poor had hard lives increased from 27% in 1994 to 39% in 2005.

While sympathy for the position of poor Americans has risen across party lines, the partisan gap in the intensity of feelings has grown substantially. From 1994 to 2005, the percentage of Republicans who said they felt strongly that the poor had hard lives increased 5 percentage points, to 23%. But among Democrats, the 2005 figure was more than twice as high, 54%, and that level reflected a 19-point rise from 1994. Independents took a middle ground; in 2005, 39% of independents said they felt strongly that the poor had it hard, up from 26% in 1994.