Welfare spending in the US – which encompasses programmes like Medicaid, Unemployment Compensation, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – is notably lower than in other wealthy countries. Alesina et al. (2001) note that European governments redistribute income on a significantly larger scale than the US, and European welfare programmes tend to be more generous and serve a greater number of citizens than comparable welfare programmes in the US. When it comes to US welfare policies, many Americans oppose redistribution, in spite of increasing wealth inequality in recent decades (Alesina et al. 2017, Bazzi et al. 2017).
One possible explanation that scholars have proposed for this discrepancy is that White Americans dislike redistributing money to Black Americans (Gilens 1995), who they believe benefit disproportionately from welfare. Several studies have suggested that this may be the case. For example, Brown-Iannuzzi et al. (2017) observed that people were less supportive of welfare when presented with images of Black recipients than White recipients. The authors also observed that the average welfare recipient was perceived to be more likely to be African American and associated with stereotypes than the average non-welfare recipient.
Stereotypes of welfare receivers can be traced back to Reagan-era anti-poor resentment of the 1970s, which produced the idea of the 'Welfare Queen' – a Black woman, typically with many children, who shirked employment and capitalised on welfare benefits (Covert 2019, Harell et al. 2016). Contemporary political discourse continues to peddle the notion of the welfare recipient as a burden to society, unwilling to seek paid work, as evidenced by Trump's 2018 State of the Union address ("We can lift our citizens from welfare, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.") This language reiterates extant stereotypes of those who receive welfare; moreover, these stereotypes may be held both explicitly and implicitly (Alesina et al. 2019).
White Americans' apparent reluctance to give money to Black recipients is compounded by the fact that many people overestimate the share of welfare recipients who are Black (Akesson et al. 2022, Delaney and Edwards-Levy 2018). In a recent study (Akesson et al., 2022), we observed that the average White respondent in our sample estimated that 38% of welfare recipients are Black, while the average Black respondent estimated the figure at 35%. The true proportion of Black welfare recipients is closer to 21% (USCB 2018). In addition, in a recent study, Alesina et al. (2021) found significant racial and politically partisan disparities in perceptions of Black and White Americans' economic opportunities, as well as partisan divides among White Americans when it comes to perceived causes of racial economic inequities.
To build on these findings, we conducted two experiments with the goal of providing the first causal estimates of the relationship between beliefs about the share of welfare recipients who are Black and White Americans' support for welfare. Further, building on the work of Alesina and Stantcheva (2020), we also sought to examine whether priming people to think about race influences support for welfare.
Employing the latest methodology in information provision experiments, we investigated the causal relationship between beliefs about the racial identity of welfare and support for welfare. In the first two experiments, we asked participants to state their beliefs about the proportion of welfare recipients who identify as White, Black, or belonging to another racial or ethnic identity group. Participants were then randomly assigned into either a control group that was shown no information, or into 'high' or 'low' treatment groups that were presented with varying estimations about the proportion of welfare recipients who are Black, White, or another racial identity. After the treatment, we again elicited treated participants' beliefs about the racial identity of welfare recipients. Finally, we recorded the primary outcome of interest: whether or not participants supported welfare. This was accomplished by informing participants that they would be enrolled in a lottery for $100 and then asking them whether they would like to donate the money (if won) to either of two non-profit organisations, one of which was described as explicitly pro-welfare and the other as anti-welfare.
Experiment 2 followed the same structure as Experiment 1 but also incorporated a priming element: participants assigned to the control group were then randomly assigned to first be asked about their willingness to donate to pro-welfare or anti-welfare organisations before being asked about the racial demographics of welfare recipients, or vice versa. This allowed us to investigate whether being primed to think about race might influence participants' implied support for welfare.
Across both experiments, on average participants estimated that 37% of welfare respondents are Black (29% White, 25% neither White nor Black, 27% Hispanic). This represents a significant overestimation (a pattern consistent with the existing literature), as the actual percentage of Black welfare recipients is around 21%. When it comes to the primary outcome of interest – support for welfare – we found that beliefs about the racial identity of welfare recipients have a significant causal effect on the percentage of participants who donate to the anti-welfare organisation: for every one percentage point increase in beliefs about the share that is Black, participants become 0.7 percentage points more likely to donate to the anti-welfare organisation. The same pattern was observed for Experiment 2: for every percentage point increase in the share of welfare recipients who are Black, participants are 0.1 percentage points less likely to donate to the pro-welfare organisation. These results suggest that when White people believe that a higher proportion of welfare recipients are Black, this reduces their support for welfare.
These findings have important implications for those intent on influencing voter behaviour in the US (Lee et al. 2006). For example, changing people’s beliefs about the actual racial distribution of welfare recipients could significantly impact the extent to which White voters endorse pro-welfare legislation. However, as the experiments showed, it may also be difficult to increase support for welfare as discussing race may prime people and make them less favourable towards increased spending. It is thus imperative that future studies be conducted to understand precisely for whom it is important to bring up the topic of racial distribution of welfare recipients and when. In addition, we need to investigate why white people appear reluctant to give welfare money to Black Americans: does this hesitancy stem from racism, doubts about how deserving these recipients are, or questions about the efficacy of welfare funds going to Black individuals? Our work sets the stage for ongoing investigations into how racial beliefs influence welfare endorsement across the US.
Akesson, J, R W Hahn, R D Metcalfe and I Rasooly (2022), “Race and Redistribution in the United States: An Experimental Analysis”, NBER Working Paper No. 30426.
Alesina, A and S Stantcheva (2020), “Diversity, immigration, and redistribution”, AEA Papers and Proceedings 110: 329–34.
Alesina, A F, E L Glaeser and B Sacerdote (2001), “Why doesn’t the US have a European-style welfare system?”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2: 2001.
Alesina, A, S Stantcheva and E Teso (2017), “Intergenerational mobility and preferences for redistribution”, VoxEU.org, 21 June.
Alesina, A, M Carlana, E L Ferrara and P Pinotti (2019), “Revealing implicit Stereotypes”, VoxEU.org, 2 February.
Alesina, A, M Ferroni, G Giupponi, C Landais, A Lapeyre and S Stancheva (2021), “Perceptions of racial gaps, their causes, and ways to reduce them”, VoxEU.org, 12 November.
Bazzi S, M Fiszbein and M Gebresilasse (2017), “Individualism and opposition to redistribution in the US: The cultural legacy of the frontier", VoxEU.org, 23 December.
Brown-Iannuzzi, J L, R Dotsch, E Cooley and B K Payne (2016), “The Relationship Between Mental Representations of Welfare Recipients and Attitudes Toward Welfare”, Psychological Science 28(1).
Covert, B (2019), “The Myth of the Welfare Queen”, The New Republic, 2 July.
Delaney, A and A Edwards-Levy (2018), “Americans Are Mistaken About Who Gets Welfare”, Huffpost, 2 May.
Gilens, M (1995), “Racial attitudes and opposition to welfare”, Journal of Politics 57(4): 994–1014.
Harell, A, S Soroka and S Iyengar (2016), “Race, prejudice and attitudes toward redistribution: A comparative experimental approach”, European Journal of Political Research 55(4): 723–744.
Lee, W and J E Roemer (2006), Racism and redistribution in the United States: A solution to the problem of American exceptionalism”, Journal of Public Economics 90(6-7): 1027–1052.