The Power of Words, Social Welfare Edition

I was browsing through the 2018 General Social Survey again and happened to come across a pretty astounding example of how important question wording can be. Or, perhaps, how important words can be in general. GSS nerds will be unsurprised by this, but here’s how white people feel about helping the poor. It all depends on precisely how you ask:

This is a pretty astounding difference considering that welfare and assistance to the poor are pretty much the same thing. I’m tempted to say that the difference is that whites associate welfare with black families, but it turns out that African Americans show the same gap in attitudes toward the poor. In fact, the gap among African Americans is even bigger than it is for whites.

So how do people really feel about spending on safety net programs? It’s impossible to say. I doubt very much that 70 percent of whites are truly in favor of spending more, but I also doubt very much that only 20 percent are truly in favor of spending more. I guess it all depends on how you sell it.

POSTSCRIPT: It’s also worth noting that these responses are completely divorced from actual spending levels. Spending on poor families has increased by about 300 percent since 1973, but the answer to these questions has stayed rock steady the entire time.

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