Perceptions of racial unfairness drives opposition to federal spending

The perception that the U.S. government distributes money unfairly across racial lines is a major driver of public opposition to federal spending, argues a new study co-authored by Yale political scientist Kelly Rader.

Using original survey data, the authors found that 66% of respondents think current federal spending is unfair – a perception that was widely expressed among Blacks, Latinos, and whites. The study, published in the journal American Politics Research, found that people who think federal spending is unfair to their own racial group are substantially more likely than those without this view to believe that the government spends too much money.

The study was co-authored by Katherine Krimmel of Barnard College.

“Our past research has focused on how a type of racism called racial resentment is associated with increased opposition to government spending among whites,” said Rader, an associate professor of political science in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “However, our unfairness measure is broader than that: Blacks and Latinos perceive unfairness too, and rightly so, given our nation’s history of discrimination in access to public goods and services. And this belief affects their views of spending overall. It suggests that racial politics play a greater role in fiscal politics than widely perceived.”

It suggests that racial politics play a greater role in fiscal politics than widely perceived.

Kelly Rader

In developing their theory, Rader and Krimmel drew on insights from behavioral economics. In particular they utilized the classic “ultimatum game,” in which one individual decides how to divide a lump sum between herself and another person, who cannot negotiate and must either accept or reject the proposer’s offer. Experiments have shown that people routinely reject offers they view as unfair and walk away empty handed. The researchers suggest that this “inequity aversion” causes people to oppose government spending when they perceive that their racial group receives less federal money than it deserves relative to other racial groups, even if reducing spending may mean less money for desired programs.

The representative survey, which was administered to a group of 2,024 adults who identified as either Latino, Black, or white, supported their hypothesis: On average, respondents who thought that federal spending unfairly disadvantages their own racial group were 18 percentage points more likely to oppose government spending than those who believe the government distributes money equitably.

The survey revealed evidence of inequity aversion among all three racial groups. The perception of unfairness toward their racial group increased opposition to government spending 21 percentage points among whites, 20 percentage points among Blacks, and 17 percentage points among Latinos. Inequity aversion exists across partisan and ideological boundaries, decreasing support for government spending similarly among Democrats, Republicans, fiscal liberals, and fiscal conservatives, according to the study.

Overall, 61% of respondents said they think the government spends too much money, 26% reported that spending levels are about right, and 13% said the government spends too little. A plurality of respondents among all three racial groups thinks the government spends too much, demonstrating that opposition to federal spending is not limited to any specific racial group, the researchers stated.

A significant share of respondents – 46% of whites, 66% of blacks, and 61% of Latinos – said that federal spending is unfair to their own racial group. Forty-six percent of respondents said spending was unfair to another racial group, while 34% perceived no unfairness in spending. The perception that the government distributes money unfairly to another racial group makes people less likely to think that the government spends too much, the researchers found.

Discussion of opposition to spending often centers on means-tested programs, such as food stamps, which measure a family’s income against the federal poverty line. Only 9% of respondents said they were thinking of these types of programs when answering whether the government spends too much, just enough, or too little. By comparison, 19% of respondents reported that they were thinking of defense spending when answering the question. Respondent associations with government spending covered a wide range of goods and services, suggesting that the study captured the relationship between perceptions of the racial distribution of government money and federal spending writ large, Rader explained.

“Better understanding why there is such broad opposition to federal spending among the U.S. public can inform any number of important fiscal and policy debates, including how the government should respond to the current public health crisis and its related economic fallout,” said Rader, a resident fellow at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. “It can sharpen our understanding of who people think government serves and what kind of problems it should try to solve.”

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