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Explaining Social Policy Preferences: Evidence from the Great Recession



To what extent do personal circumstances, as compared to ideological dispositions, drive voters’ preferences on welfare policy? Addressing this question is difficult because a person's ideological position can be an outcome of material interest rather than an independent source of preferences. The article deals with this empirical challenge using an original panel study carried out over four years, tracking the labor market experiences and the political attitudes of a national sample of Americans before and after the eruption of the financial crisis. The analysis shows that the personal experience of economic hardship, particularly the loss of a job, had a major effect on increasing support for welfare spending. This effect was appreciably larger among Republicans than among Democrats, a result that was not simply due to a “ceiling effect.” However the large attitudinal shift was short lived, dissipating as individuals’ employment situations improved. The results indicate that the personal experience of an economic shock has a sizable, yet overall transient effect on voters’ social policy preferences.


Corresponding author

Yotam Margalit is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 420 W. 118th Street, New York, NY 10027 (


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