Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date

2013

Abstract

Despite the broad reach of what is often referred to as the “social safety net,” Americans continue to have conflicted and contradictory attitudes about the relationship between tax burdens and social welfare benefits. Extensive and lively debates persist within political science, sociology, law, economics, and psychology over how mass publics form opinions about the role of the state in mediating economic equality through both taxation and welfare institutions. This chapter identifies several key themes that reappear across disciplinary and subject boundaries. Specifically: information about taxes and spending is complex and may be hard for ordinary citizens to fully apprehend, cognitive limitations hamper people’s capacity to process the information ways that are always consistent, and symbolic politics play a critical role in shaping preferences about both taxes and government benefits. This chapter also explores the implications of these insights for public policy, including possibilities for designing tax and welfare institutions to counteract cognitive bias and raising public awareness by advertising the benefits of popular government programs. Finally, I examine the recurring phenomenon of grassroots mobilization of American voters around issues of taxes and spending. I briefly examine the rise of the “Tea Party” movement in shaping public discourse after the financial meltdown of 2009, and contrast it with a potential counter-movement concerned centrally with income inequality, Occupy Wall Street. Such mobilizations can have a potent effect on public opinion, but I argue can be both consequence and cause of ambivalence in public debates about taxes and social spending.

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