The “Fuzzy” Concept of Welfare: Conflicting Views on the Welfare System in America

Almost two-thirds (64%) of Americans believe that many low-income individuals receiving aid from the government are just looking for a free handout. The same Reuters/Ipsos tracking survey indicates that two thirds (65%) of Americans also believe that most of the low-income individuals who receive aid from the government deserve the assistance. How do we reconcile these conflicting view points?

The relationship between Americans and the welfare system is a complicated one. The welfare system ranges from well-known programs such as Social Security and Medicare to programs that are less well-known and specialize in education, food assistance, and additional cash benefits for low-income households or individuals. For many Americans, the concept of welfare is a “fuzzy” concept that it difficult to understand (and to poll on), while for current recipients or those awaiting assistance, it is a concrete reality. Polling on these types of “fuzzy” issues is especially complex because people tend to be less informed and aware of the dynamics at play, which often yields the type of conflicting opinions our survey has captured.

The United States government has always wrestled with the best way to confront welfare. Many critics claim that a welfare system creates dependency on the state and a burden for taxpayers, while others claim that a strong welfare system is a necessity for society and should continue to grow. While a small number are extremely vocal on the subject of welfare, the numbers mentioned previously show that the average American has a less concrete view of welfare that falls somewhere in between the ends of this attitudinal spectrum.

While roughly two-thirds of the public believe that welfare recipients are both looking for a handout and deserve the assistance that they receive, this is not to say that there are not differences between demographic groups. Those with incomes over $75,000 are more likely to believe that those who receive assistance are looking for a handout and less likely to believe that those recipients are deserving of the assistance that they receive (see table below). Younger people aged 18-24 are much more likely to believe that recipients deserve the assistance they receive, compared with those aged 25-34 (78% vs. 63%). When broken down by sex, men and women answered roughly the same.

% Agree

(Strongly/Somewhat Agree)


Under $25,000

Between $25,000 to $74,999

Over $75,000

Age 18-24

Age 25-34

Most poor people who receive aid from the government deserve the assistance they receive







Many poor people receiving aid from the government are just looking for a free handout







Middle of the road solutions have long been heralded as the true way of American politics, and welfare is no exception. However, while almost all Americans have direct experience of, for example, paying taxes, far fewer have direct interactions with the welfare system. This yields a situation of both low information (most people don’t understand the details of how the welfare system works) and low salience (welfare is not a relevant issue for most unless you are a recipient). The result of this dynamic is a conflicting set of attitudes, yielding survey data showing what appears to be opinions that cannot be reconciled. Clearly, further exploration of these attitudes is warranted. This is the first in a series of blogs.