Low Plaza

Six Years After Welfare Reform, Public Opposition to Welfare Spending Declines

By James Devitt

When the U.S. Congress passed landmark welfare reform legislation in 1996, elected officials had the support of the public to back them. Six years later, Congress is debating whether to reauthorize the legislation, officially titled Temporary Assistance to Need Families (TANF). However, Americans have become less opposed to welfare benefits since the law was first enacted, according to an analysis by Columbia Political Science Department Chair Robert Shapiro and Greg Shaw, Ph.D. '98, a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.

The research was conducted at Columbia's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy(ISERP), an interdisciplinary research organization for the social sciences and public policy.

Analyzing poll results from several sources, including Gallup, the New York Times/CBS News and the Wall Street Journal/NBC, Shapiro and Shaw noted that in December 1994 57 percent of respondents thought that "most people who receive money from welfare could get along without it if they tried." But by January 2001 this percentage had slipped to 44 percent. Conversely, in December 1994 only 36 percent of respondents felt recipients "really need this help," but by January 2001, 47 percent held this view.

Shapiro and Shaw also note that according to a survey by the National Election Studies that between 1996 and 2000, the percentage of Americans in favor of cutting federal spending on food stamps fell from 45 percent to 30 percent.

"Large percentages of Americans still believe most people on welfare don't need government assistance, but in the past few years, that has become the minority position," said Shaw.

"This shift in public opinion on welfare spending seems due to the adoption of stricter eligibility guidelines and work requirements for welfare recipients," said Shapiro, co-author of "The Rational Public" (Chicago 1992) and "Politicians Don't Pander" (Chicago 2000). "The public may be more willing to support welfare spending if they believe the money was spent on the working poor or those genuinely unable to provide for themselves."

Additional aspects of TANF include limits on increased benefits for additional children born on welfare, limits on benefits for minor mothers and time limits on cash benefits.

Shapiro and Shaw attributed the shift in public opinion to the 1996 welfare reform legislation rather than changes in the economy. Historically, they said, support for welfare spending increases during tough economic times and recedes during prosperous ones. However, in the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, public opposition to welfare spending declined -- directly at odds with public opinion trends from the 1970S and 1980s.

They also noted news coverage of welfare as a topic had declined since the mid-1990s. Using a Lexis-Nexis search during 1995 and 1996, Shaw and Shapiro retrieved more than 4,000 stories -- 2,193 in 1995 and 1,861 in 1996. However, in 2001, a similar search retrieved only 350 articles on the same subject.

Their analysis appeared in the March-April issue of the Roper Center's "Public Perspective" and will be included in a forthcoming issue of "Public Opinion Quarterly."

Published: Apr 01, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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