In an article published in this Journal, we have examined whether American welfare recipients possess beliefs and attitudes that differ from mainstream public opinion. Although our findings cast doubt on the existence of a widespread ‘culture of dependence’, we do show that programme beneficiaries exhibit self-interested support for government policies that provide assistance to needy segments of the population. However, our analysis – like most others on this topic – assumes that welfare participation affects opinions and not vice versa. This is problematic because there are theoretical reasons to believe that influences flow in the opposite direction, as well. Therefore, some important questions remain to be answered: is it really the case that welfare participation, itself, shapes the outlook of programme beneficiaries? Or do political attitudes affect reliance on public assistance in the first place?
In this Research Note, we examine the underlying structure of the relationship between welfare participation and attitudes towards government activity. Our analysis uses the 1992 Center for Political Studies (CPS) National Election Study, the same dataset employed in the earlier article. But, we test a statistical model that allows for reciprocal influences between welfare and public opinion. The empirical results reinforce the earlier conclusion that welfare participation has an impact on mass attitudes. Conversely, political attitudes have no effect on whether citizens use public aid. Mirroring our earlier work, we find that people who rely on governmental assistance take rational, self-interested positions on the public policy issues which operate to their own direct benefit.