In October, I had a post on the claim that support for redistribution has "plummeted" in the current recession. It turns out to be either false or misleading, depending on how you look at it. The important thing was Obama's taking office: support for redistribution, as measured by this question, is consistently higher when a Republican is in office. I interpret that as people make an implicit comparison--should we do more or less than we are doing now? The rate of unemployment seemed to have no effect on opinions, and the shift from 2008 to 2010 was not unusually large given the change of presidents.
That question involved the desirability of reducing the differences between the rich and the poor. There are two ways to do that: giving to the poor and taking from the rich. They're not the same: we could take from the middle class and give to the poor, or take from the rich and give to the middle class. Economic conditions won't necessarily have the same effect on opinions about these two kinds of redistribution. So I looked for a question that focused on the poor, and found one that asked people to choose between two statements:
Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return (or) poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently
This has been asked pretty frequently since 1994, first by Times-Mirror and later by the Pew Research Center. The last time (Feb 2011), 41% said that poor people had it easy, and 47% said they had hard lives. To simplify, I combine the two figures by computing percent "easy" minus percent "hard": in this case, -6. Larger positive numbers indicate more conservative opinions. The changes since 1994:
Opinions were most conservative in the 1990s, and have been more liberal since 2000. I tried a regression equation predicting average opinions from the party of the president, the unemployment rate, and whether the survey was before or after the enactment of welfare reform in August 1996. As with redistribution in general, opinions were more conservative under Democrats. They became more liberal after welfare reform. I interpret these differences as people responding to changes in the way things are, or the way they think things are. The unemployment rate also makes a difference: opinions become more liberal when unemployment increases. So hard times don't make people turn against the poor: they make them more sympathetic.
I'll try to find a question that focuses on views of the rich--if I find one that's been repeated often enough to make a comparison, I'll write about it in a future post.