How Do People Think About the “Social Safety Net”?

I’m amazed at the poor job progressives do when it comes to “messaging” about the social safety net. Obviously it would be easier if the unemployment rate wasn’t two points higher than the president said it would be, but proponents of strong welfare programs tend to concede the token anti-welfare complaint of “I don’t want to pay money to buy healthcare for poor people.” That sentiment isn’t exactly inaccurate, but a smart response would be “You’re not buying healthcare for poor people. You’re buying healthcare for yourself, should you become poor.” In other words, the safety net is there for everybody. If you’re lucky enough that you haven’t fallen into it yet, good for you. But it’s still there for you.

Psychology research on in-group/out-group dynamics and perspective taking shows there’s a lot to be gained by reminding people that they might one day need to use Medicaid or TANF. In general, if you get people to imagine they are part of a group or convince them to see things from that group’s point of view, they treat the group better. One study led by Robyn Mallett of Loyola University found that perspective taking induced heterosexuals to take more action in response to hate crimes against non-heterosexuals. A different study led by Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University found that perspective taking reduced stereotypes.

There are a lot of factors influencing social policy preferences, but finding language that reminds people they might someday use the safety net should help those people imagine themselves in poverty. Those imaginations, or “taken perspectives,” will ultimately lead them to take a more positive stance toward those in poverty and the policies designed to alleviate that poverty.
Mallett, R., Huntsinger, J., Sinclair, S., & Swim, J. (2008). Seeing Through Their Eyes: When Majority Group Members Take Collective Action on Behalf of an Outgroup Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 11 (4), 451-470 DOI: 10.1177/1368430208095400

Galinsky, A., & Moskowitz, G. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (4), 708-724 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.78.4.708

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