A common assumption in political economy is that voters are self-regarding maximizers of material goods, choosing their preferred level of social spending accordingly. In contrast, students of American politics have emphasized the key role of an other-regarding motive that makes support for social transfers conditional on the perceived deservingness of recipients. The two motives often conflict as large portions of the poor (rich) find recipients undeserving (deserving). I argue that material self-interest overruns perceptions of deservingness when the share of income affected by social transfers is high. Using European data, I show that low (high) income individuals are less (more) likely to be driven by considerations of deservingness. Cross-nationally, the more working-age benefits are evenly spread across income groups, the less deservingness considerations permeate public debates on welfare state reform. This framework has important implications for understanding attitudinal change in two high inequality countries, the United States and Great Britain.
Charlotte Cavaille is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Toulouse. She received a PhD in Government and Social Policy from Harvard University in November 2014. Her work examines changes in mass attitudes toward redistributive policies in advanced capitalist countries. Her dissertation focuses on the disconnect between rising income inequality and stable levels of support for income redistribution in Great Britain and the United States. Some of her findings have been published in the Journal of Politics.