This paper examines how the means through which social benefits are delivered—either through a direct government program, or through a tax expenditure program—affects how citizens view social welfare programs and their beneficiaries. Attitudes toward social spending in the United States are strongly conditioned by both racial considerations and perceptions of the deservingness of recipients. We argue that the political cues given by spending conducted through the tax code differ from those given by direct spending in a way that both de-racializes spending attitudes and changes the lens through which citizens evaluate the deservingness of beneficiaries. Through a series of survey experiments, we demonstrate that social benefits delivered through the tax code are less likely to activate racialized thinking than similar or identical benefits delivered directly. This is true, at least in part, because recipients of tax expenditures are perceived as more deserving than recipients of otherwise identical direct spending.
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Data to replicate the tables in this paper can be found at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/UN2SMP.
This project was supported by a grant (83-14-05) from the Russell Sage Foundation, and we thank the Foundation for its generous support.
The U.S. is unique in the degree to which it funds social welfare programs through the tax code rather than directly: the U.S. ranks first internationally in per-capita spending on social tax expenditure programs (Howard 2007).
There are three main reasons for this regressive distribution of benefits. First, because tax expenditures are exclusions from a progressive tax system, a similar absolute dollar deduction is worth more to someone in a higher bracket than in a lower bracket. Second, many tax subsidies are tied to employment-based benefits, which are more likely to be offered to higher paid, full-time workers. Finally, many tax expenditures are available only to those who itemize their tax returns—a practice that is more common among the wealthy.
This racial composition of recipients is nearly identical to the racial profile of food stamp recipients, and only modestly more white (40% for TANF) than recipients of traditional welfare payments (Falk 2016).
This differential rate of growth spending is, at least in part, reflected by public perceptions toward the two programs: the EITC is consistently supported by majorities of citizens, while welfare-type programs are among the least popular types of social spending (e.g., Acs and Toder 2007; Ellis and Stimson 2012).
The deservingness heuristic is likely a universal feature of public attitudes towards social welfare spending: perceptions of deservingness are strongly associated with welfare attitudes even in countries with more communalistic orientations (van Oorschoot 2006; Petersen 2015). And the role of deservingness in shaping policy preferences is not limited to social spending: Reyna et al (2006), for example, find that perceptions of the deservingness of potential recipients plays a role in shaping whites’ attitudes toward affirmative action for African Americans.
These attitudes spill over even into opinions on programs that are designed to be race-neutral, since Americans tend to overestimate the proportion of beneficiaries of these programs that are nonwhite (Gilens 1996; Kellstedt 2003). Gilens (1999, p. 67) argues, for example, “it is now widely believed that welfare is a ‘race-coded’ topic that evokes racial imagery and attitudes, even when racial minorities are not explicitly mentioned” (see also Brown-Iannuzzi et al. 2017; Henry et al. 2004; Lei and Bodenhausen 2017).
Many citizens, for example, do not characterize benefits delivered through the tax code as being a form of government spending or government intervention in the economy (Mettler 2011).
Williamson (2017), for example, finds that citizens take pride in being taxpayers and that the categories of “deserving” and “nondeserving” overlap fairly well with the categories of “taxpayer” and “nontaxpayer.”
The question asked specifically about support for welfare spending at the state level, which (while more accurate for the purposes of understanding how welfare monies are allocated), is a bit of a departure from more conventional wordings, which just as respondents for their views on “welfare.” It is worth noting that the magnitude of the coefficients in the analyses to follow mirror closely what is seen when using similar predictors with the 2012 American National Election Study (which asks more simply about support for “welfare” spending).
Consistent with what we would expect, the EITC is more popular than welfare spending. 47% of our respondents want to increase the size of EITC, while only 26% wish to increase welfare spending. 37% of respondents want to cut welfare spending, while only 24% want to cut the EITC.
The egalitarianism scale was created by combining levels of agreement with three statements: “One of the biggest problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance;” “incomes should be more equal because every family’s need for food, housing, and so on, are the same,” and “this country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.”
In addition, we see that trust in government is predictive of attitudes toward welfare spending, but not attitudes toward the EITC. This finding is to be expected: since spending conducted through the tax code is less likely to prime thoughts of “government” than is spending conducted directly, it makes sense that a person’s level of trust in government will be less predictive of attitudes toward such spending. At least here, the distrust that leads citizens to oppose social spending (Hetherington 2005) seems to apply only to direct spending, not tax expenditures.
This survey was conducted using methods similar to those used in conducting the CCES. Yougov is an online survey firm that recruits respondents to participate in surveys from a national panel. Panelists are recruited to join the Yougov panel through a variety of different means, and are randomly invited to complete particular surveys as part of their participation. Panelists for the survey are recruited to be representative of the American public based on gender, age, and education. For more information about Yougov’s methods, and its comparison to more traditional RDD-based survey methods, see Twyman (2008).
One potential complication is that while information about the program (cost, purpose, etc.) remains identical across the two conditions, the tax expenditure description says that only citizens who earn taxable income will be eligible. We cannot say for sure how strongly this affects the results to come, though framing this program in a way that explicitly included “worker” may serve to more directly activate the counter-stereotypical perceptions of African Americans that we argue drives lower levels of symbolic prejudice for tax expenditure programs.
The order in which respondents received each of these three vignettes was also randomized.
Our argument is that attitudes toward recipients of tax expenditures are likely to be less racialized because aid delivered through the tax code severs some of the connections between “black” and “nonworking” that are often seen in attitudes toward recipients of direct aid. If this vignette directly primes “worker” in both of its versions, then the effects of spending mode in shaping perceptions of recipients may be overwhelmed by the fact that we directly state that the beneficiary is, in fact, working.
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Ellis, C., Faricy, C. Race, “Deservingness,” and Social Spending Attitudes: The Role of Policy Delivery Mechanism. Polit Behav 42, 819–843 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-09521-w
- Public opinion
- Social spending
- Symbolic racism
- Social policy