Sunday, January 15, 2017

What difference would it make?

In 1995, a survey sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Kaiser Foundation, and the Washington Post asked a series of questions about changes in "the quality of the air we breathe," "the share of Americans over 65 who live in poverty," "the difference in income between wealthy and middle-class Americans," the number of children who "grow up in singe-parent families," and "the rate of violent crime" over the last 20 years.  It then asked a randomly selected half of the sample about whether "federal programs helped to make things better, made things worse, or have they not had much effect either way"; the other half was asked about the effect "more effort and spending by the federal government would have" on each of the conditions.  The results are summarized below:

                 Change    Effect of gov't   Effect of more gov't
Air Quality
    Better        20%         47%             49%
    Worse         53%         13%              7%
    Same          25%         37%             42%

    Summary                  +34%            +42%

Poverty over 65
    Better       15%          23%             53%
    Worse        57%          32%             11%
    Same         24%          41%             33%

    Summary                   -9%            +42%

Income Differences
    Better       10%          10%             25%
    Worse        66%          50%             18%
    Same         22%          36%             53%

    Summary                  -40%             +7%

Single parent families
    Better        3%           10%            21%
    Worse        89%           39%            15%
    Same          7%           48%            59%

    Summary                   -29%            +6%

Violent Crime
    Better        2%            8%            43%
    Worse        91%           33%             9%
    Same          7%           56%            44%

    Summary                    -25%          +34% 

For each condition, the number who thought things had become worse was substantially larger than the number who thought things had improved.  It would be interesting to explore that further--is it something about people in general, or about Americans in particular--but I'll focus on the questions about government action.  For air quality, poverty among people over 65, and violent crime, the number who say that more government action would improve things is substantially larger than the number who say it would make things worse.  For the other two, difference between the rich and the poor and single-parent families, opinion is almost equally divided.  Air quality is the one issue on which more people see the government as having done good rather than harm.  The gap between rich and middle class is the one one which the balance of opinion is most negative.

   This relates to the evergreen question of why many low and moderate income people vote against their apparent interest in redistribution.  The most popular explanations among social scientists seem to be first, that people exaggerate the chances that they or their children will be rich someday, and second, that people are diverted by something else like "social issues" or ethnic loyalties.  I don't think that there's much truth in the first--most people seem to be pretty realistic about their chances of upward mobility (see this paper).  The second is a factor, and often an important factor.  But there's also another potential explanation, which hasn't gotten the attention it deserves--lack of confidence in what the government could or would do.  The puzzling thing is the big difference between reducing poverty among people over 65 and reducing differences between the rich and the poor--both of them involve redistributing income, but public opinion about the effect of trying to do that are very different.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

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