Friday, January 29, 2016

Aid and welfare

Many social scientists believe that universal social welfare programs are inherently more popular than means-tested programs.  The idea is that people come to regard universal programs as a right, while means-tested programs carry a stigma.  I've never been convinced by that, and have thought that college financial aid is an obvious counterexample--it's means-tested, and yet it's popular with the public.  At least I thought it was popular, but recently Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote "efforts to make college affordable via targeted financial aid are divisive. Families that don’t get aid resent those that do. Over time, the purchasing power of programs like the Pell Grant has eroded for lack of political support, and recipients have been denigrated as lazy, 'academically adrift' and akin to 'welfare recipients.' Compare that to the solid support for Medicare and Social Security, which offer benefits to all senior citizens."*  So I did.

In 1997 a Pew survey asked "if you were making up the federal budget this year, would you increase spending, decrease spending, or keep spending the same for...."  In 2011 it asked almost the same question, just substituting "budget for the federal government" for "federal budget."  Ten items were asked in both years, including "financial aid for college students."  I summarize the results by giving percent who said increase minus percent who said decrease:

                                              1997 2011  change
The public school system                      60   43    -17
Combating crime                               55   21    -34
Health care                                   50   17    -33
Financial aid for college students            43   28    -15
Social Security                               37   29     -8
Medicare                                      36   28     -8
Environmental protection                      32   10    -22
Scientific research                           31   13    -18
Military defense                              -9    1    +10
Government assistance for the unemployed     -13   -1    +14

Support for spending on most programs was lower in 2011 than 1997, which I think was because there was more concern about the budget deficit.  But the drop for financial aid was not especially large.  It was the fourth most popular program in 1997 and tied for third in 2011.  

So there's no evidence that the declining value of Pell grants reflects lack of popular support--I would guess that it's a consequence of the general squeeze on discretionary spending.  As far as the popularity of different spending programs, my hypothesis is that it's about whether the recipients are regarded as "worthy" rather than whether they are means tested.  Old people and students are regarded as worthy.  So are the working poor, which explains why programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit don't encounter much opposition.  Programs that help working-age people who don't have jobs are a different story. 

*There were no links to sources, so I don't know who compared recipients of financial aid to welfare recipients.  I haven't read "Academically Adrift" but from the reviews it sounded like its criticism was directed more at colleges and universities than at students who received financial aid.  

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