Public Opinion and Social Policy

What we say vs. what they hear
By Lisa Stein

"If ever U.S. politicians pay attention to public opinion, surely we would expect them to do so on such an important, contentious issue as the future of Social Security." - Fay Lomax Cook

Photo by Mary Hanlon.

A central tenet of democracy goes something like this: Elected representatives should establish and carry out policies that reflect the prevailing public opinion. Citizens express their views; politicians listen to them and act accordingly.

Of course, the relationship between public opinion and policy making is never that direct. It is particularly complicated in the sphere of social policy, where many of the people who require government assistance traditionally don't have a strong voice in government. Discerning the public's opinion of social programs requires diligence and depends a great deal on the questions, who is asking them and how they are asked. Policy makers have their own political agendas that influence what they choose to pay attention to and how they relate their findings back to the public.

In examining the tangled connection between public opinion and social policy, several questions emerge. To what degree does public opinion really affect social policy? How do policy makers invoke public opinion to advance their goals? What roles do politics and the media play in reflecting opinion and shaping policy?

These are a few of the questions studied by Fay Lomax Cook, professor of human development and social policy and director of the Institute for Policy Research. Cook's four books examine the views people hold about policies such as welfare programs and Social Security, and why they hold them. Recently her research has shifted toward analyzing how those policy makers use public opinion, particularly within the much-debated area of the future of Social Security.

"I have found that policy makers sometimes invoke public opinion to push their own agendas," Cook reports. "We have to look very carefully at what public opinion actually is, so that it is not used inappropriately. In policy debates, policy makers often pick and choose the results of public opinion surveys to argue for their own points of view without presenting the whole picture."

In the 1992 book Support for the American Welfare State: The Views of Congress and the Public, Cook and co-author Edith Barrett examined what the public truly thought about various social welfare programs. They focused on the mid-1980s, when President Reagan and his administration proposed drastic cutbacks to welfare programs, using as part of their justification the low support revealed in public opinion polls. The media reported these claims about welfare's crisis of legitimacy without questioning their accuracy.

Cook and Barrett completed their own opinion surveys, however, and found that the majority did, in fact, support social welfare programs. Bucking the common pollin
By Lisa Stein