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A Public Transformed? Welfare Reform as Policy Feedback

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2007

University of Wisconsin—Madison
Bryn Mawr College


This article analyzes the strategic use of public policy as a tool for reshaping public opinion. In the 1990s, “progressive revisionists” argued that, by reforming welfare, liberals could free the Democratic Party of a significant electoral liability, reduce the race-coding of poverty politics, and produce a public more willing to invest in anti-poverty efforts. Connecting this argument to recent scholarship on policy feedback, we pursue a quantitative case study of the potential for new policies to move public opinion. Our analysis reveals that welfare reform in the 1990s produced few changes in mass opinion. To explain this result, we propose a general framework for the analysis of mass feedback effects. After locating welfare as a “distant-visible” case in this framework, we advance four general propositions that shed light on our case-specific findings as well as the general conditions under which mass feedback effects should be viewed as more or less likely.

© 2007 by the American Political Science Association

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