Some studies suggest that support for the welfare state declines as immigration diversifies the population. However, recent research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) shows that the story is probably not that simple.
“We find little evidence to suggest that the degree of diversity or antipathy towards other ethnic groups alone explains attitudes towards equity or public action aimed at reducing inequalities,” says Tor Georg Jakobsen, professor at NTNU Business School.
“We tested the so-called ‘welfare chauvinism hypothesis’, the idea that welfare is good, as long as it goes to people in your own group.
A new survey looks at people’s attitudes to sharing welfare, and whether this is affected by the proportion of immigrants, or more by people from other ethnic groups. The researchers looked at responses from around 310,000 people in around 100 countries.
“We tested the so-called ‘welfare chauvinism hypothesis,’ the idea that welfare is good, as long as it goes to people in your own group,” says Jakobsen.
Amplified Skeptical Attitudes
Previous surveys in the United States indicate that people are more skeptical about sharing welfare with people of other ethnic backgrounds than their own. Some have even used this as an argument that Americans in general are more skeptical of various welfare systems than people are in Europe, and especially Scandinavia. The United States is a very ethnically complex country compared to most others.
However, European surveys do not reveal such a trend, nor does this one.
“Across the West as a whole, only people who were already skeptical of people from other ethnic groups become more skeptical of different welfare schemes when the proportion of immigrants is high. This is not the case for the rest of the population,” explains Jakobsen.
“People who have nothing against immigrants are also more supportive of various welfare schemes.
People who dislike people from other ethnic groups are therefore generally more negative about helping people who need support when the level of other ethnicities is relatively high. But the number of skeptics does not increase, only the resistance of pre-existing skeptics increases.
People with no prejudicial attitude towards immigrants are also more supportive of various social protection schemes, including for immigrants.
“We see this effect most strongly when we look at a selection of Western countries,” says Indra de Soysa, a professor in NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science.
Some immigrants need support
Some political groups believe that a higher proportion of immigrants undermines the welfare state. But immigrants come in many forms, from highly educated people who go straight into high-level professions to refugees who hope to build a better life for themselves and their families in a new country.
“Populist parties get support because people are afraid of immigration, because the parties claim that the welfare state is under threat because of immigration and that people of other ethnic backgrounds don’t deserve this support,” says de Soysa.
We cannot underestimate that certain immigrant groups are among those most in need of welfare state assistance.
Immigrants may come with few resources, lack relevant education or work experience, and have little or no network of contacts in their new life.
So they may need help finding a job, housing, or other supports, especially in the beginning. This support may make some people skeptical. But the proportion of immigrants in a society plays a lesser role.
Little threat to the welfare state
“Our results indicate that what matters are attitudes toward other cultures in general, not skepticism related to demographic shifts or increased ethnic competition for economic advantage,” says de Soysa.
Only a small proportion of the 310,000 respondents – just over 8% – are skeptical of foreign culture.
“So the increase in immigration is also not seen as a major problem for the welfare state,” says Jakobsen.
The story would be different if a greater proportion of the population became more skeptical of immigration. But this question is not part of this study.
Tor Georg Jakobsen, Indra de Soysa. Ethnic diversity, racial prejudices and attitudes towards fairness in the West and beyond. A multilevel analysis, 1989-2014. The International Review of Minority and Group Rights (2022) 1–23.
International review on the rights of minorities and groups
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Ethnic diversity, racial prejudices and attitudes towards fairness in the West and beyond
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