Who Deserves a Helping Hand?: Attitudes about Government Assistance for the Unemployed by Race, Incarceration Status, and Worker History

Download data and study materials from OSF

This experiment was fielded as part of two TESS telephone surveys. Data and materials for all the studies included on these surveys are available here and here.

Principal investigators:

Devah Pager

Harvard University

Email: devah_pager@harvard.edu

Homepage: http://sociology.fas.harvard.edu/people/devah-pager

Jeremy Freese

Northwestern University

Email: jfreese@northwestern.edu

Homepage: http://www.jeremyfreese.com/

Sample size: 2015

Field period: 10/2003-11/2003


We use the experimental survey methodology to examine whether public attitudes about assistance for the unemployed are affected by the race of the individual considered, whether unemployment was the result of incarceration, and the interaction of the two. We also investigate how these attitudes vary by the race and political orientation of respondents. The experimental design provides an ideal approach to the study of sensitive topics, such as racial attitudes, which can be difficult to gauge adequately using traditional survey methodologies.


We examine four different research questions:
1. Does the race of the recipient affect levels of support for public assistance; if so, how? Does the effect of the race of recipient differ depending on the characteristics of the respondent?
2. How does the cause of unemployment--laid off, fired, or released from prison--affect levels of support for public assistance? How does the effect of the cause of unemployment differ depending on characteristics of the respondent?
3. Can information about worker history mediate the negative stigmas of race (black) or cause of unemployment (fired, released from prison)? Do respondent characteristics moderate how information about worker history is used?
4. How do race, gender, and political orientation affect overall levels of support for government assistance? When and how do respondent characteristics interact with characteristics of the potential recipient to affect support for government assistance?

Experimental Manipulations

The race (black / white / unspecified), reason for unemployment (laid off / fired / incarcerated), and prior work history (stable / unstable) of the unemployed 26-year-old male described in vignette.


Support for government assistance for unemployed male described in vignette.

Summary of Results

Blacks are far more likely than whites to support government assistance in all contexts. Black and white respondents alike were more likely to support government assistance for black recipients than for white ones. An individual who had been fired was less likely to receive support than an individual who had been laid off. Among white respondents, having been in prison is similar to having been firedboth elicit judgments of culpability. Among black respondents, by contrast, having been to prison is treated no differently than having been laid-off. A steady worker elicits substantially more support than an unsteady worker. Among white respondents, a steady work history seems to partly offset the negative stigma of being fired; it does not, however, improve the evaluation of those who were in prison.


The findings of this study have important implications for our understanding of public opinion, particularly with respect to policies aimed at providing job assistance for the unemployed. Far from a uniform consensus on how to approach the problems of unemployment, opinions starkly differ depending on the race and political ideology of those making evaluations, upon the race and perceived culpability of the potential recipient, and upon the interaction of the two. Recognizing the complexity of contemporary public opinion will help us to move toward a more complete understanding of the factors that shape policy change related to issues of social welfare.


Pager, Devah and Jeremy Freese. 2004. "Who Deserves a Helping Hand?: Attitudes about Government Assistance for the Unemployed by Race, Incarceration Status, and Worker History" Presented at Meetings of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco.