Representation mechanisms in social policy: Income-group preferences and partisan effects

Steven Van Hauwaert & Xavier Romero-Vidal, University of Surrey & Leuphana University Lรผneburg


The extent to which policy-makers respond to public opinion has been at the heart of a vivid scholarly debate over the past decade. While some research suggests that governments respond to changes in mass preferences, an increasing number of scholars claim that governments either disregard public opinion in general or are only influenced by the opinion of the more affluent segments of the population. Considering the rising tide of inequality and the growing size of lower- and middle-income electorates, this question is particularly relevant when it comes to social provisions. After all, social policy is at the heart of the contemporary European state structures. With that in mind, this study examines whether and how social policies respond to public opinion. We rely on a comprehensive dataset and a time-series cross-sectional design to examine these questions in seven advanced democracies from the 1980s to 2017. The results suggest that social policy reflects changes in aggregate preferences. When disaggregating our question for separate income groups, we find clear indications of underrepresentation of the preferences of the poor in social policy. We also provide some evidence of partisan effects on social policy, and discuss their implication for policy representation.