About us

Leading international thinktank and political network


Register for all the latest updates in our regular newsletter

Home Opinion Welfare reform: Public opinion angst and framing
Reform • Public Opinion • Framing

Welfare reform: Public opinion angst and framing

Gijs Schumacher - 12 February 2013

Research illustrates that governments have much more leeway in reforming policies than public opinion surveys may suggest, but how they frame the issues is important

Proponents of a progressive social investment strategy for the welfare state may have cause to worry. Interpreting a new survey on welfare state preferences in the UK, Denmark and France, Patrick Diamond and Guy Lodge argue that support for the traditional welfare state is strong, but support for investment in child benefits, pre-school childcare and maternity/paternity leave is weak. They label this the ‘conservative bias’ and claim that this bias is becoming ever stronger.

I agree with Diamond and Lodge that political parties should not ‘merely follow what public opinion tells them to do’. Yet by over interpreting and rationalizing their results, I sense public opinion angst in the Diamond and Lodge article reminiscent of politicians scared by the prospect of losing their jobs. This is unnecessary. I will argue in the next sections that from an electoral perspective it is both possible to reform the welfare state and feasible to pursue a social investment strategy.

For a long time, many welfare state researchers have held that despite strong macro-economic pressures the welfare state will not be altered, because of the strong public support from left-wing and right-wing constituents. People are also inclined to adopt a status quo bias. They prefer the certainty of what they have over uncertain gains that a policy change might bring. Hence, unless governments succeed in lowering uncertainty over the gains of policy change, the public is generally against it.

However, observing some radical reforms and many incremental reforms, most welfare state researchers were forced to explain why governments change the welfare state despite the popularity of the status quo. To answer this question, researchers studied more and more how governments framed particular reforms and how that influences individual decision-making. I mention three examples:

First, prospect theory1 predicts that individuals are more willing to take risks when in a domain of losses. In other words, the status quo bias dissolves once individuals are ‘losing’. The implication is that both governments are more willing to take risks under the prospect of losing elections2, and that voters are more willing to accept radical reforms in economically bad times3.

Second, the information supply is crucial for voter decision-making. Providing voters information on the costs of the pension system strongly increases their support for pension reforms, such as increasing the retirement age4.

Third, voters often have conflicting preferences, on the one hand preferring less government spending (and less taxes) and on the other hand preferring increases in spending on a range of issues5.

By strategically emphasizing one issue and neglecting the other, politicians can manipulate issue salience and thereby vote choice. There are more examples of research that illustrates that governments have much more leeway in reforming policies than public opinion surveys suggest. Framing is important, and may in fact explain the retrenchment in pension systems across Europe and extension of social investment policies such as in Germany, which is according to Diamond and Lodge not supposed to happen.

But what about a social investment agenda, is it feasible?

I have three arguments against the author’s conclusion that such an agenda is in danger because public opinion is against it:

First, did the authors identify the preferences of individuals on social investment policies? They asked respondents about spending preferences, but is that all there is to a social investment agenda? According to Esping-Andersen6 nobody cares about spending per se, but in fact this is what the authors ask respondents to evaluate. I presume the social investment agenda is about certain priorities – e.g. children should not be left behind. This does not necessarily mean more spending, but perhaps a reorganization of child care provision.

Second, most people in the survey do not indicate whether to spend more or less on child care, maternity/paternity leave and pre-school childcare. They are undecided on the issue and are therefore especially prone to framing efforts. These people can convinced of either side, and the political agenda that is pushed the hardest is most likely to determine those people’s opinions.

Third, the authors even claim a growing conservative bias. In the absence of over-time material in their survey, I am puzzled how the authors reach this conclusion. It is not new that public opinion strongly supports traditional welfare state programs and is less enthusiastic about social investment policies.

In sum I do not share the authors’ pessimism for the future of social investment policies. There is room for reform and the data do not show that there will be a strong electoral majority against social investment policies.

Yet, for a political agenda to succeed political actors need to make clearer what that agenda is, need to provide information on the benefits, and need to reduce uncertainty over the gains and losses such reforms would imply. As a politician one could tread carefully and make sure one does not step on the wrong toe of public opinion. But to set the agenda one has to speak up and make an effort to frame the debate so that social investment policies become widely perceived as the best solution. This is perhaps more risky, but to be honest: what does the Left really have to lose?

Dr. Gijs Schumacher is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and an affiliated researcher at the VU University Amsterdam.

This article is a response to European Welfare States after the Crisis: Changing public attitudes by Patrick Diamond and Guy Lodge.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263–292.

Vis, B. (2010). Politics of Risk-taking. Welfare State Reform in Advanced Democracies. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Vis, B., & Van Kersbergen, K. (2007). Why and How Do Political Actors Pursue Risky Reforms? . Journal of Theoretical Politics, 19(2), 153–172. doi:10.1177/0951629807074268

Boeri, T., & Tabellini, G. (2010). Does information increase political support for pension reform? Public Choice, 150(1-2), 327–362. doi:10.1007/s11127-010-9706-6

Schumacher, G., Vis, B., & Van Kersbergen, K. (2013). Political Party’s Welfare Image, Electoral Punishment and Welfare State Retrenchment. Comparative European Politics, 11(1).

Esping-Andersen, G. (1985). Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: Gijs Schumacher , Opinion , Opinion , Patrick Diamond , Guy Lodge , Europe , Denmark , France , United Kingdom , UK , Welfare , Welfare State , Social Security , George Osborne , Left , Centre-left , Tax , Crisis , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt Crisis , Contributory Principle , Welfare Benefits , Benefits , Beveridge , Beveridge Report , Universalism , Means Test , Responsible Capitalism , Progressive Conservatism , Pensions , Social Insurance , Social Investment ,

Add comment


Enter the code shown:

The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

Most read this month

Search Posts

search form
  • Keyword
  • Title
  • Author
  • Date posted