Americans Gradually Embracing Welfare State

Ezra Klein passes on some charts compiled by the Center for American Progress’ Ruy Teixeira illustrating the steady march toward acceptance of the welfare state by Americans:

Socialism Poll Trends May 2007

Ezra’s right, I think, that this “looks more like an ideological shift than a situational one.” Indeed, I’ve long argued that, while the rhetoric of American politics has moved to the right (indeed, the word “Liberal” has been shunned by the left for years), the policy has moved to the left.

I would snark that the public’s support for giving free stuff to the poor has not kept up with its desire to pay taxes. Actually, though, that’s not really true. The American Enterprise Institute (hardly a pro-tax-hike organization) released a study last year showing that the number of Americans who feel their federal income tax burden is “too high” has been generally decreasing in recent years, with a marked drop-off since 2002. (See the relevant trend chart below the fold.) Then again, the percentage of income going to federal income taxes has actually been lowered for most Americans in the last twenty years and the percentage saying their taxes are “too low” has never risen above three percent.

Regardless, I remain part of the recalcitrant 28-29% depicted in red.

I would agree that an affluent society ought to take care of those who truly “can’t take care of themselves,” although I would stop short of saying that it’s the responsibility of government to do that. Given that government gets its ability to do anything by confiscating it from its citizens, that statement strikes me as far too strong. And my definition of “can’t take care of themselves” might be stricter than many.

I’m even more puzzled by the notion that “government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep,” unless some rather strong caveats are attached. Indeed, given housing costs in major metropolitan areas, that’s a pretty sweet “entitlement.” Surely, we should at least resist taking on that burden for all but those who truly “can’t help themselves”?

As a practical matter, I’m not sure how we can square the circle of absolute freedom and no responsibility for citizens. One the one hand, we have a liberal judicial culture which insists on the rights of the insane-but-not-crazy-enough-to-be-a-danger to remain at large without visible means of support and sleep wherever they damned well please. No hygiene? No problem! Sure, it lessens the enjoyment of the commons for the taxpaying masses but, hey, winos have their rights! On the other, everyone is entitled to free food, shelter, and health care cradle to grave.

So, we can’t forcibly take people who can’t or won’t support themselves off the streets and put them in state institutions — that would be inhumane! — be we have to somehow house and feed them. Hmm. Essentially, the taxpayer gets the worst features of anarchy and a welfare state.

AEI American Surveys Taxes 1947-2006 Trends

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I think Americans fully accepted the Welfare State when Eisenhower was elected. The public could have voted in a candidate who wanted to pull back much of the New Deal. Instead they picked the moderate ex-general.

    When you combine that acceptance with the inability of conservative politicians to use constitutional arguments to fight government programs we have the Sweden Lite system we have today.

  2. Anon says:

    I think that you would get a much different breakdown if the questions were rephrased to incorporate your caveats. For example:

    The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep in a location of the citizen’s choosing, even if that location is a metropolitan area with high housing costs.

    I would guess that there would be a lot more “no” answers. So maybe you are not actually in the minority.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Here’s the link to the study itself and I don’t think it shows quite what I would take away from this post or the posts to which it links. To my eye what the change in numbers over time suggests is that American opinion cycles through a fairly narrow range on these questions. We’re not at either extreme of that range right now.

    To be honest I found this more interesting. In answer to the following question:

    “Should government help more needy people even if debt increases”.

    The number of Democrats agreeing with the statement is actually lower than it was in 2003. Independents, on the other hand, are trending to support the statement.

    That appears to be the case for many of the questions: independents are trending more “progressive”.

  4. legion says:

    Personally, I think that with the increasing gulf between rich and poor in this country, coupled with the shrinking middle class and the general trend of higher credit debt/lower savings, an increasing number of Americans are disturbingly within sight of _needing_ that gov’t handout; thus they are less upset about their tax dollars going to ensure that support stays in place…

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Legion, I agree with you. I think we should strip George Soros of all of his wealth. Take all that the Kennedy’s own, All the money Kerry’s wife has and use it to fund Government grants ot feed the poor. Someone much wiser than you once said never trust a rich liberal. Good advise. Take it.

  6. floyd says:

    So! After all the sanctimonious BS, the majority of Americans favor institutionalized slavery , at least for the workforce, according to this compilation of information.

  7. gentlevoice says:

    I’d be interested to see the correlation between the percentage of folks who pay no income tax with that of those saying ‘gov’t should support everybody”. I wonder if the drift up in nontaxpayers matches the drift up in “let the gov’t daddy take care of them”.

  8. carpeicthus says:

    Boy, this has sure gotten people’s crazy up.

  9. Bithead says:

    Sean’s point is well taken. I would add to that that past that point it’s all been a matter of degree, anyway.

    I would suggest, however, that Roosevelt knew exactly the kind of foundation he was laying down. As the founders themselves repeatedly observed , once the people figure out that they can pilfer tax funds for their own ends, the Republic is doomed.

    That situation, however, is nothing, compared to the concept of letting people from outside the Republic decide what the republics funding gets used for, as Gentlevoice points out.

  10. Kent says:

    Polls are nice, but revealed preference is more reliable. When the voters start voting for politicians who promise to raise their taxes to feed/shelter the poor — not just the taxes on the rich — I’ll believe a shift towards liberalism.

    And that isn’t a “pigs fly” criterion. I could see it happening, though I think it somewhat unlikely.