Beliefs about welfare

by on March 24, 2004 at 5:34 am in Data Source, Economics | Permalink

Why does Western Europe spend so much more on welfare payments than does the United States?

Why is the latter system (45% of GDP) bigger than the former system (30% of GDP)?

While 29% of Americans believe that poor people are trapped in poverty, 60% of Europeans share this belief.

While 30% of Americans believe that luck determines income, 54% of Europeans share this belief.

While 60% of Americans believe that poor people are lazy, 24% of Europeans share this belief.

Robert Tagorda continues with the following:

These statistics come from the Economist, which has a fascinating review of Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference. Authored by Harvard scholars Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, this forthcoming book argues that institutional and political differences lead to contrasting American and European approaches.

More provocatively [we now move to Tagorda citing The Economist]:

The other half of the explanation lies in America’s racial diversity. In spite of 20 years of unprecedented immigration, European countries, particularly smaller ones like Portugal and those of Scandinavia, are still highly racially homogenous. America, by contrast, has great diversity, which is especially wide in some states. In addition, the poor in America are disproportionately non-white. Non-Hispanic whites are 71% of America’s population but only 46% of the poor.

Racial diversity in individual states is correlated with the generosity of welfare. For instance, the authors find that in 1990 Aid to Families with Dependent Children ranged from over $800 per family per month in mainly white Alaska to less than $150 in Alabama and Mississippi, where almost one-third of the population is black. Even after adjustment for inter-state differences in average incomes, the correlation with race remained strong. Across countries, too, racial diversity goes with low government spending on poverty relief.

The reason, argue the authors, is that “race matters”, and they marshal statistical evidence, much of it from opinion surveys, to back this up. People are likely to support welfare if they live close to recipients of their own race; but are antipathetic if they live near recipients from another race. The divergent attitudes of Europeans and Americans to the poor are underwritten by the fact that the poor in Europe tend to be ethnically the same as most other folk. In America, their skin is often a different colour. [Emphasis added by Tagorda.]

My take: I buy the basic results. The sorry truth is that a fully cosmopolitan society is an impossible ideal. Furthermore the proffered questions don’t fully get at the real beliefs of many Americans, which is that most poor people deserve their status. (I think some of the poor are lazy, but being a determinist I don’t assign fault.) That being said, it is such false beliefs that keep American welfare spending at reasonable, non-European levels. By the way, here is a related paper by the authors.

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