Immigration Attitudes and Support for the Welfare State in the American Mass Public

Authors James C. Garand, Ping Xu, and Belinda C. Davis describe their American Journal of Political Science article from 61:1 – January 2017 titled “Immigration Attitudes and Support for the Welfare State in the American Mass Public,” in the following blog post:

The increase in the immigrant population in the United States over the past four decades has drawn considerable attention from both scholars and political observers. Scholars have considered the economic, political, and social implications of the influx of immigrants, and politicians and the mass public are embroiled in debates about the degree to which expanded immigration has had a positive or negative effect on American society. In particular, there is disagreement about whether immigrants are net detractors by drawing a disproportionate level of resources from the American welfare state.

It is in this context that we consider in this paper the effects of Americans’ attitudes toward immigration on their support for the welfare state. In previous research scholars have explored the relationship between racial attitudes and welfare attitudes, and these studies have shown that how Americans think about race is related to how they think about welfare programs (Gilens, 2000). Simply, Americans who have positive views toward black Americans and who see blacks as conscientious and hard-working are significantly more likely to support welfare programs than those who have more negative views toward black Americans.

In this paper we use data from the Cumulative American National Election Study (CANES) from 1992 to 2012 to explore the linkage between individuals’ immigration attitudes and their attitudes toward welfare. We measure immigration attitudes in three ways: (1) affect toward illegal immigrants, based on a feeling thermometer ranging from 0 (negative) to 100 (positive); (2) support for immigration, measured as a three-point scale ranging from -1 (respondent supports decreased immigration) to +1 (respondent supports increased immigration); (3) a “pro-immigration” scale, based on a factor analysis of the first two items. We measure welfare attitudes using two survey items: (1) affect toward welfare recipients, ranging from 0 (negative) to 100 (positive); and (2) support for welfare spending, measured as a three-point scale ranging from -1 (respondent supports decreases in welfare spending) to +1 (respondent supports increases in welfare spending). We estimate a series of regression and ordered logit models using these variables, and we include in our models controls for affect toward blacks, affect toward the poor, partisan identification, liberal-conservative ideology, gender, racial variables, age, education, family income, church attendance, and fixed effects for state and year.

We find strong support for our hypothesis that immigration attitudes are positively related to welfare attitudes. Simply, in all of our models individuals who think highly of illegal immigrants and/or who support increases in immigration are strongly and significantly more favorable in their assessments of welfare recipients and more supportive of increases in welfare spending. These results stand even in the face of statistical controls for other variables thought to have an effect on welfare attitudes. The magnitude of these effects is quite high. To illustrate, in Figure 2 from the paper we show the effects of the pro-immigration scale on the predicted probabilities that individuals support increased, decreased, or the same level of welfare spending. As one can see, increases in pro-immigration attitudes result in a substantial decrease in the probability that individuals support decreases in welfare spending, from p = 0.532 for the lowest value on the pro-immigration scale to p = 0.229 for the highest value. On the other hand, increases in pro-immigration attitudes result in discernible increases in both the probability that individuals support increases in welfare spending or keeping welfare spending the same. Clearly, how Americans think about immigration has a strong effect on attitudes toward welfare spending.

Figure 2. Scatterplot of relationship between pro-immigration attitudes and support for greater welfare spending, selected years (1992-2012), Cumulative American National Election Study


What is particularly noteworthy about our findings is that the magnitude of immigration attitudes effect is the second largest in our model, only behind the magnitude of the effect of attitudes toward the poor. In other words, how Americans think about immigration is the second strongest predictor of welfare attitudes, even greater than the effects of attitudes toward blacks, partisan identification, liberal-conservative ideology, and family income, among others. This suggests the “immigrationalization” of welfare attitudes during a time period that has seen a substantial increase in both the number of immigrants and the share of immigrants participating in some welfare state programs.

Finally, our finding that Americans’ immigration attitudes shape their welfare attitudes withstands a number of robustness tests. We consider the possibility that the relationship between immigration attitudes and welfare attitudes is endogenous, but our 2SLS models continue to show a strong effect of immigration attitudes in shaping how Americans think about welfare. Further, we estimate our models separately for white respondents only, for respondents who are from immigrant and non-immigrant families, and for the periods before and after welfare reform efforts in the mid-1990s. In each case the coefficients for immigration attitudes are of high magnitude and statistically significant, suggesting that the relationship between immigration attitudes and welfare attitudes is robust across different individual attributes and contexts.

The bottom line is that how Americans think about immigration is a powerful predictor of Americans’ welfare attitudes. Based on our findings, we contend that the immigration wave and resulting demographic change that has occurred in the past four decades has shifted America’s welfare state from being “racialized” (Gilens 2000) to being more “immigrationalized.”


Gilens, Martin. 2000. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.