Media focus causes drop in support for welfare — even among those who need it

February 11, 2021

Media's portrayal of welfare recipients changes depending on economic conditions. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

In times of high economic inequality, media outlets tend to focus more on personal characteristics of welfare recipients than on poverty’s social roots and impacts, according to new research, a dynamic that may drive even the disadvantaged to oppose social spending that could benefit them.

According to an article published earlier this month in Public Opinion Quarterly, media coverage of poverty changes as inequality rises, increasingly painting “the behaviors of the poor” in a negative light — a trend that predicts lower support for welfare spending, especially among low-income earners.

The result suggests that the way news coverage frames social spending plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion, raising questions about the U.S. government’s ability to fight inequality when even those most likely to gain from redistribution are convinced not to back it.

“Media coverage can … help explain why the relatively disadvantaged adopt attitudes that seem to be counter to their economic self-interest, and why these attitudes have intensified along with [rising] inequality,” co-authors Derek A. Epp and Jay T. Jennings wrote.

The researchers, both based at the University of Texas at Austin, set out to understand how Americans’ attitudes toward welfare spending evolve alongside mounting economic inequality, which has soared higher in the U.S. than much of the rest of the developed world.

Public opinion on redistributive spending, according to Epp, appears to move in counterintuitive ways. While economic self-interest would seemingly prompt low-income earners to support further welfare spending and high-income individuals to oppose it, both groups have been shown to move largely in tandem, opposing such spending even as economic gains further concentrate at the top.

While uncovering exactly what causes low-income individuals to oppose welfare spending will take further research, Epp and Jennings hypothesized that Americans from across the socioeconomic spectrum have turned against redistribution in part because of the way news media addresses the issue.

“We don’t have a monopoly” on the explanation for public attitudes toward welfare, Epp told The Academic Times. “But what we suggest … is that there’s a media dynamic” at work in shaping Americans’ opinions.

To test whether media framing around poverty has impacted views about welfare, the researchers examined recent U.S. history for evidence that the prominent national media narrative had changed over the decades — and that it was changing alongside increases in economic inequality.

Adapting a framework first developed by researchers Max Rose and Frank Baumgartner, they coded poverty-related articles from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune according to how these articles talked about poverty — either by emphasizing its social causes and costs or by focusing on “personal characteristics,” including failures and misbehavior, of poor individuals.

Epp and Jennings found that articles emphasizing personal failure grew as a share of poverty-related coverage in the newspapers under study between the 1960s and the mid-2010s. By plotting the percentage of “personal failure”-framed stories for each newspaper against the inequality-tracking Gini Index, they confirmed significant correlations between this change in media framing and the rise in inequality over the same period.

“[I]ncreasing inequality has coincided with a dramatic reversal in the nature of newspaper coverage from emphasizing the circumstantial difficulties of poverty to questioning the work ethic and morals of the poor,” Epp and Jennings wrote.

After uncovering this trend from the historical record, the researchers then found evidence that the media’s shift toward a focus on poor people’s personal shortcomings predicts increased opposition to welfare spending — particularly among low-income individuals.

Using responses collected from participants in the General Social Survey, which has been conducted since 1972, Epp and Jennings found that a one standard deviation increase in personal failure frames is linked with a nearly one standard deviation increase in respondents who said too much money was being spent on welfare.

While respondents with family incomes above the median were 14% more likely to say that too much money was being spent on the social safety net, even low-income groups became less supportive of welfare expenditures as the personal failure frame grew more common across the nation’s leading newspapers.

Epp and Jennings also carried out a survey experiment to gauge whether the personal failure frame actually generated “less generous public sentiments” as they expected. It showed that participants’ support for welfare spending took a hit after exposure to a story with a personal failure frame, as compared to groups exposed to a story focused on themes of societal failure or a story unrelated to poverty.

“Looking at only low-income respondents provides the strongest evidence that the article frames are working as expected,” the researchers wrote, noting, “Exposure to the personal-failure article is associated with declining support for welfare spending, and the reaction provoked by this frame is statistically distinct” from the societal failure frame and the control condition.

Epp said the results may reflect a correlation between media frames and inequality that isn’t self-reinforcing; in that case, media frames might shift back in the direction of poverty as a societal failure, nudging public attitudes in favor of increased welfare spending.

But if inequality actually causes the media to emphasize personal failure in its poverty-related coverage, he continued, it could be more challenging to alter public opinion and increase financial support for society’s most vulnerable segments.

“I will put myself in the more optimistic camp — I think the rhetoric surrounding [expanded welfare spending] is changing,” Epp said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic may be changing media coverage and public perceptions of welfare expenditures in a time when many Americans are reeling from financial shocks.

“I certainly think a shift from [focusing on] personal failure to collective responsibility is happening,” he said. “You now have the possibility for some really major changes in how we do welfare … which would potentially be good” in the fight against inequality.

The article “Inequality, Media Frames, and Public Support for Welfare,” published Feb. 1 in Public Opinion Quarterly, was co-authored by assistant professor Derek A. Epp and postdoctoral fellow Jay T. Jennings of the University of Texas at Austin.

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