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Heading into the 2020 presidential election, many policy debates surround measures which would help to address economic insecurity, such as Medicare-for-All and higher minimum wage laws. In new research, Mallory E. Compton and Christine S. Lipsmeyer look into what drives voters to support more government spending on one such policy – unemployment insurance. They find that when the economy as a whole is bad, people support greater spending, no matter their own circumstances. On the other side of the coin, when government social programs are less comprehensive – as is the case in the US – support for such measures is driven by people’s own individual circumstances.

Economic insecurity is rising in the US, and that’s a problem. It’s an important issue not only because it has detrimental effects on personal health and wellbeing, but also because research shows that economic insecurity shapes political behavior—how people vote and what policies they support. Given the importance of ongoing policy debates about reducing insecurity (e.g., a higher minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, the Affordable Care Act), it’s important to understand individuals’ preferences for those polices, and, also, what motivates those preferences.

In recent research, we investigated why individuals in developed democracies support greater spending on social insurance policies. Existing work pointed to three factors, which we argue have interrelated effects.

First is pocketbook or personal economic insecurity: when individuals face greater uncertainty in the labor market, it should be in their self-interest to support public policies aimed at guaranteeing greater economic security. When someone is more vulnerable to unemployment, they should see more at stake in unemployment insurance, for example, and may therefore be more supportive of public spending on it.

Second is sociotropic or collective economic insecurity: when the economy as a whole is experiencing greater insecurity (i.e., unemployment), individuals tend to support social policy more. This may be motivated by altruism and a concern for the wellbeing of others, or it may be that managing economic risk with public policy becomes more important as greater attention is devoted to economic security by the media, friends, etc.

Third is the institutional context: a range of public policies exist to reduce economic risk, and the existence of those policies affect individuals’ policy preferences in two ways. First, more generous and comprehensive social policies may buffer people from perceiving economic insecurity as a risk—people become less sensitive to or aware of their own exposure to economic risk, when they can rely on social insurance. Second, the existence of those policies can become institutionalized and normalized, and people may value the security they provide regardless of their own risk level.

With survey data from 16 developed democracies (including the US) in 1996 and 2006, we examined how these three factors explained individuals’ support for greater spending on unemployment insurance. (Please see our complete article and online appendix for the methodological details.) Our findings suggested some important conclusions.

Unemployment Office” by Bytemarks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

First, both personal and collective insecurity matter. Controlling for other factors, individuals facing greater economic risk (when they work in an occupation with a higher unemployment rate) support spending on unemployment insurance more. People are also motivated by collective insecurity (the overall unemployment rate)—they support spending more when unemployment in the economy as a whole is greater.

Interestingly, where collective/aggregate insecurity is very high, individual economic insecurity becomes insignificant. Figure 1 demonstrates this finding with simulation results. When the economy as a whole is bad enough, our results suggest that collective concerns overwhelm the contribution of personal economic insecurity in shaping individual’s support for social spending.

Figure 1- Interactive effects of individual and collective insecurities on support for unemployment spending

Note: dashed lines indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for estimated conditional marginal effect of individual economic insecurity

Our second important finding was that the effects of both personal and collective insecurity on policy preferences depended on context, and specifically, policy context. On the one hand, where social programs are less generous and less comprehensive—i.e., where governments provide relatively less security through public policy—individuals’ support for spending on unemployment insurance is largely driven by their own personal risk exposure. This result is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Interactive effects of individual and institutional insecurities on support for unemployment spending

Note: dashed lines indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for estimated conditional marginal effect of individual economic insecurity 

On the other hand, where comprehensive social insurance programs already exist to protect against economic insecurity, individuals’ policy preferences are not affected by their own personal risk exposure. Instead, in those policy contexts, individuals’ preferences are driven primarily by collective risk exposure. This result is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 – Interactive effects of collective and institutional insecurities on support for unemployment spending

Note: dashed lines indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for estimated conditional marginal effect of collective economic insecurity 

These results shed new light on why and when people are motivated to support greater spending on social policy. Yes, personal self-interest seems to matter quite a lot, but that’s not the end of it. People are also motivated by collective economic concerns, and sometimes macroeconomic insecurity matters more than personal economic insecurity. We used a cross-national research design, but our findings can still help us understand the politics of social policy in the US, specifically.

Compared to many of the other countries in our study, social policies in the US are less generous in ensuring economic stability for households. Our findings showed that where welfare programs are less generous, it’s personal circumstances that drive social policy support, not macroeconomic circumstances (Figures 2 and 3). Where welfare programs are more generous, support for social policies is driven by a combination of macroeconomic and personal economic circumstances. In the US context, with relatively less generous policies, we’d expect social policy preferences to be driven more by individual economic insecurity than by collective economic insecurity.

Also, unemployment in the US has remained pretty low recently (4 percent in January 2019), and we found the effect of personal economic circumstances to be greatest when overall unemployment is lower (Figure 1). So, we’d expect the effect of personal insecurity in this economic context to be larger than in other economic contexts.

In this context of both low unemployment and less-generous policy institutions, Americans are likely to be primarily motivated by their own economic (in)security in deciding whether they support more or less investment in social policy. In the current US context, personal economic motivations trump collective economic concerns. 

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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About the authors

Mallory E. ComptonUtrecht University
Mallory E. Compton is a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University School of Governance. Her main research interests are public policy and governance performance, with a focus on social insurance and economic insecurity. Recent publications include an article in The Journal of Politics and a forthcoming book with Oxford University Press titled Great Policy Successes.

Christine S. LipsmeyerTexas A&M University
Christine S. Lipsmeyer is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Program in Policy and Politics at Texas A&M University. Her current research interests include questions about redistribution, the dynamics of government policymaking, and the politics and economics surrounding budgets and public spending. Recently, her work has been published in The Journal of PoliticsSocial Science Quarterly, and the Journal of European Public Policy.