Interventionist Preferences and the Welfare State:The Case of In-Kind Nutrition Assistance
with Sandro Ambuehl, B. Douglas Bernheim, and Tony Fan
Poverty assistance is often administered in-kind even though cash transfers might raise recipients’ welfare more effectively. We characterize the political economy constraint that paternalistic motives impose on the welfare system. In our experiment, a representative sample of U.S. citizens reveal their motives by deciding whether to constrain real U.S. food stamp recipients’ choices between in-kind donations and cash equivalents we disburse. The modal respondent (40%) imposes the strictest possible constraints, while 30% impose no constraints. Hence the majority’s behavior is consistent with deontological motives rather than trade-off thinking. Yet, because of biased beliefs about recipient preferences, respondents underestimate the restrictiveness of their interventions, suggesting that they are partly misguided. When respondents decide between restricting recipients whom they believed should be restricted and giving choice to those whom they believe should have choice, they place substantially more weight on the former motive, which, too, tends to increase the severity of restrictions. Overall, respondents’ goal is not to ensure sufficient healthy nutrition, but to prevent consumption of items deemed inappropriate. While respondents reveal racial and gender stereotypes in various survey questions, neither donor nor recipient demographics have substantial effects on restriction decisions, though restrictions increase with respondents’ political conservatism. In-experiment behavior correlates strongly with views about government policy.