Public Views on the Social Contract: Not the Washington Consensus

The Great Recession and its aftermath have put an additional strain on the American social contract, as more Americans needed to draw from revenue-strapped government supports. Even while growth returns slowly, the lingering effects include shifts in public attitudes, particularly toward programs to aid the poor. Yet public support for social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare remains very high.

In a new paper for the Next Social Contract Initiative, Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at Pew Research Center, analyzes the survey data from Pew and other recent polls to draw a picture of current views on the role of government and the social contract.

The most vulnerable have become even more vulnerable: public support for the social safety net for the poor has decreased from 69% in 2007 to 59% in 2012. Most notably, partisan differences have increased substantially since the financial crisis as Republicans have become more skeptical of the role of government.

Stokes writes: “The percentage of Republicans asserting a government responsibility to aid the poor has fallen sharply in recent years. Just 40% of Republicans say that ‘It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,’ down 18 points since 2007.” Democratic views, meanwhile, have remained stable at around 75% in agreement.

When costs are factored in, partisan disagreement and Republican opposition are even greater. Only 20% of Republicans support helping more needy people even if it means taking on more debt (compared to 65% of Democrats). Twenty years ago, in 1992, the percentage of Republicans in favor was more than twice as high – 43%.

But despite these views and the much-discussed fiscal constraints facing Congress, Americans continue to strongly favor universal social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare and do not want to lower benefits. Even when framed as ways to reduce the deficit, majorities oppose raising eligibility ages on either Social Security or Medicare, and more Republicans are against raising the Social Security eligibility age than are in favor of it. This runs contrary to the typical "Washington consensus" of bipartisan support for reforming or reducing social insurance programs.

American attitudes in the abstract are still far afield of those across the European continent, however. On metrics ranging from inequality to taxation, Europeans are more supportive of a larger government role in providing for its people.

These transatlantic value differences are rooted in American skepticism of the efficacy of government and long-touted emphasis on individualism, Stokes finds. For example, twice as many Germans than Americans believe success in life is determined by forces outside of our control, and only 6% of Americans think the government "helps people like me." Together, these beliefs make the likelihood of a strong social welfare state, like those of Northern Europe, much smaller in the United States.

As Stokes says, “Public ambivalence about the social safety net suggests the United States will never provide its citizens with support comparable to that provided to citizens of Germany or Scandinavia. At the same time, Americans value the social safety net that exists and do not want it changed.”