Some recent findings on Americans views toward public benefit programs (from a paper written by Bruce Stokes at the Pew Research Center for the New America Foundation):

  • Three-fourths (75%) of Democrats believe that the government should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Similarly, 78% say basic food and shelter should be government guarantees and 65% think more support for the needy should be provided, even in the face of increased debt.
  • African Americans have consistently been more supportive of a government safety net than whites. More than three-quarters (78%) of blacks support government guarantees of food and shelter, compared with 52% of whites. Support also is high among Hispanics: 78% now agree that the government should guarantee people food and shelter.

One thought that comes to my mind with respect to these findings is how they might change if the question was posed differently. The survey asked participants whether they agreed with the statement that: “The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.” In my opinion, that wording is somewhat unfavorable, especially the use of the word ‘guarantee.’ I imagine that if the statement were more along the lines of, “The government should do everything within its power to beet basic nutritional and health needs of underprivileged Americans,” the response would have been different.


As might be expected, part of the explanation of these views comes from what’s characterized as Ameircan’s “rugged individualism.” “Roughly six in ten [Americans] reject the notion that outside forces determine success in life.” In contrast, “about seven in ten (72%) Germans, more than half (57%) of the French and nearly four in ten (41%) of the British see success determined by forces outside their influence.”

However, possibly in light of the recent Great Recession, Americans seem hesitant to blame individual economic failures entirely on lack of individual effort.  According to the report, “Less than one-in-five (18%) say those without work are responsible,” and “such sentiment is similar to that in Germany (25%) and Britain (22%).” How this rugged individualism can square away with unemployed individuals not being responsible for their own plight is beyond me.

All in all, the basic findings of the report seem to mostly confirm that Americans are (with some qualifications)  individualistic, and we exhibit a status quo bias. As Stokes puts it, although the US does not seem to support a robust expansion in the safety net, “Americans value the social safety net that exists and do not want it changed.” Then again, maybe if we re-framed these issues not as “guarantees” but as helping individuals meet their basic human needs so that they can survive, maybe we would find progress to be made yet.

Photo Credit: Tom Giebel