Scepticism about social welfare schemes can increase as immigration grows. But only among those who are already sceptical of immigrants.
Some studies suggest that support for the welfare state decreases as immigration diversifies the population. However, recent research from NTNU shows that the story is probably not that simple.
“We find little evidence to suggest that the degree of diversity or antipathy towards ethnic others alone explains attitudes towards equity or public action aimed at reducing inequalities,” says Tor Georg Jakobsen, a professor at NTNU Business School.
“We tested the so-called ‘welfare chauvinism hypothesis,’ the idea that welfare is fine, as long as it goes to people of your own group.
A new survey looked at people’s attitudes to sharing welfare, and whether this is affected by the proportion of immigrants, or more by people being from other ethnic groups. The researchers looked at responses from approximately 310 000 people in about 100 countries.
“We tested the so-called ‘welfare chauvinism hypothesis,’ the idea that welfare is fine, as long as it goes to people of your own group,” says Jakobsen.
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Sceptical attitudes amplified
Previous surveys from the USA indicate that people are more sceptical about sharing welfare support 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 in 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.
The resistance of the pre-existing sceptics just increases.
“In the West as a whole, only people who are already sceptical of people from other ethnic groups become more sceptical of various welfare schemes when the proportion of immigrants is high. This is not the case with the rest of the population,” says Jakobsen.
“People who don’t have anything against immigrants are also more friendly to various welfare schemes.
People who don’t like people from other ethnic groups are thus generally more negative towards helping people who need support when the level of other ethnicities is relatively high. But the number of sceptics doesn’t grow, rather only the resistance of pre-existing sceptics rises.
People with no prejudicial attitudes towards immigrants are also more supportive of various welfare 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 at NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science. (See fact box.)
- The Western countries included in the survey are: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Cyprus, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, USA and Austria.
Some immigrants need support
Some political groups believe that a larger proportion of immigrants undermines the welfare state. But immigrants come in many varieties, from highly educated people who step straight into high-status occupations to refugees who hope to build a better life for themselves and their families in a new country.
“Populist parties get support because people fear immigration, because the parties claim that the welfare state is threatened because of immigration and that people with other ethnic backgrounds don’t deserve this support,” says de Soysa.
We cannot underestimate that some immigrant groups are among those who need the most help from the welfare state.
Immigrants may come with few resources, lack relevant education or work experience and have a small or non-existent network of contacts in their new life.
Thus, they may need help finding a job, a place to live or other supports, especially in the beginning. This support may make some people sceptical. But the proportion of immigrants in a society plays a lesser role.
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Little threat to the welfare state
“Our findings indicate that what matters are the attitudes towards other cultures in general, and not scepticism related to demographic changes or increased ethnic competition for economic benefits,” says de Soysa.
Only a small proportion of the 310 000 respondents – just over 8 per cent – are sceptical of foreign culture.
“Thus, the increased immigration is not seen as a major problem for the welfare state either,” says Jakobsen.
The story would be different if a larger proportion of the population were to become more sceptical of immigration. But that issue is not part of this study.
Tor Georg Jakobsen, Indra de Soysa. Ethnic Diversity, Racial Prejudice, and Attitudes Towards Equity in the West and Beyond. A Multilevel Analysis, 1989–2014. The International Journal on Minority and Group Rights (2022) 1–23.