Huber and Paris on Why Americans Like Assistance to the Poor More Than Welfare (Public Opinion Quarterly)

An article by Greg Huber and Celia Paris, “Assessing the Programmatic Equivalence Assumption in Question Wording Experiments: Understanding Why Americans Like Assistance to the Poor More Than Welfare,” published in the spring issue of the journal, Public Opinion Quarterly.

Abstract: In trying to understand why Americans display relatively high levels of opposition to welfare, scholars have frequently turned to the analysis of a canonical experiment reported in this journal (Smith 1987; Rasinski 1989) in which subjects were asked about their support for either “welfare” or “assistance to the poor.” This experiment consistently shows that Americans are substantially less supportive of welfare than of assistance to the poor. This difference has been interpreted as evidence that simply describing the same core programs as welfare rather than assistance to the poor depresses support. The key assumption in these analyses is one of programmatic equivalence: relative to the words “assistance to the poor,” the word “welfare” describes the same programs, but differs in which considerations it brings to mind. This research note examines the validity of this key assumption. Analyses of novel experimental data show that there appear to be basic differences in which programs Americans consider to be welfare and which they consider to be assistance to the poor. We discuss the implications of our research for interpreting prior studies that rely upon this experiment to test theories of framing, and we suggest broader implications for survey experimental designs.