Social-Policy Attitudes and the Great Recession : Changes in Perceptions of Unemployment Insurance, Forced and Unforced Immigration, and Taxation

Abstract: Welfare policies have long been met with both scorn and support among voters. Yet, studies reveal that in the presence of declining economic conditions the division between those that support and those that oppose welfare policies appears to diminish. The reason for this, it has been argued, is that the public reconsider their opinions on the welfare state during economic downturns because worsening economic conditions amplify personal economic risk and indiscriminate harm inflicted on the general population.This dissertation evaluates if and to what degree the Great Recession impacted public attitudes in Sweden toward policies involving unemployment insurance, taxation and immigration. Using the crisis as a case study provides the added advantage of quasi-experimental conditions, which reduces the influence of confounding factors, allowing for stronger causal identification than what has been available in previous research. In addition, to better understand the inner workings of attitude formation, I also explore which motives, selfish or non-selfish are responsible for the process of change in attitudes.First, evaluating the public’s appetite for increasing unemployment insurance benefits, Essay I reveals that the public became overall more supportive of this policy following the onset of the economic crisis. Digging deeper into these results, statistical analyses show that the primary driving force behind this change are lower income individuals, and not individuals belonging to higher income groups. The finding indicates that the increased support for this policy is primarily driven by selfish interests.Essay II follows with a broader focus on both selfish and non-selfish motives by comparing two separate surveys to evaluate if attitudes changed toward forced migrants (refugees) and unforced migrants (non-refugee immigrants), as a result of the crisis. No statistically significant relationship is found between the crisis and overall support for reducing refugee intake. By comparison, a statistically significant increase in aggregate opposition toward unforced migration is observed. The results indicate that the different outcomes are explained by non-selfish motives for refugees because they are perceived as more deserving of assistance.Finally, Essay III, evaluates whether or not the public interpreted the consequences of the crisis as reason to support or oppose cutting taxes. The design of this study shows that both selfish and non-selfish motives explain support for cutting taxation. While an overall change in attitudes is not observed, the evidence demonstrates that individuals typically most supportive of cutting taxes (right-leaning) became significantly less so following the onset of the crisis. This extended even to high income earners within this group, a clear demonstration of these individuals acting against their own self-interest, suggesting the crisis cued non-selfish motives.