How Do Experiences with Government Programs Shape Political and Civic Engagement? Looking Beyond the American Case

The Impact of Program Participation on Participation in Politics Presented by Elisabeth Lesley Gidengil, McGill University74th Annual MPSA Conference, April 2016, Chicago (1)

A key insight of policy feedback theories is that government offices are sites of adult political learning. As Joe Soss explains:  “…public bureaucracies provide relatively immediate experiences with government. Legislatures may host more dramatic political activities, but the police station, the motor vehicles office, and the Internal Revenue Service are more likely to supply citizens with lessons about government that ring with the truth of first-hand experience.” The key point is that people are apt to generalize their personal experiences with government bureaucracies to government and politics at large. These experiences and the lesson about government that they impart can influence people’s sense of political agency, their perceptions of government responsiveness and their propensity to participate in political and civic life. People’s experiences with government bureaucracies will, of course, differ and the policy feedback effects can be expected to vary accordingly.

A key finding to emerge from studies of the impact of program experiences on political and civic activity in the United States is that programs that are structured along paternalistic lines typically have negative feedback effects. Clients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are particularly likely to have experiences that are disempowering and politically demobilizing. Their lives and personal circumstances are subject to a good deal of scrutiny and control and they are apt to be stigmatized and treated as deserving, at best, of pity.


The Impact of Program Participation on Participation in Politics and Civic Life – Presented by Elisabeth Lesley Gidengil at the annual MPSA conference in Chicago, April 8, 2016.

The question is whether these findings generalize to other welfare states. The United States is hardly a typical case. It is usually viewed as the archetype of the liberal welfare state where the neoliberal restructuring of welfare programs has been the most thoroughgoing. The result has been a very paternalistic welfare system that makes the receipt of benefits conditional on fulfilling a variety of obligations and gives case workers a good deal of discretion in administering benefits. This restructuring is reflected in popular discourse where welfare recipients are caricatured as “moochers” and “welfare queens”.

North of the border, Canada is also usually classified as a liberal welfare regime. However, Canada’s regime is less robustly liberal than the United States. Canada’s national social insurance programs, for example, include paid maternity (15 weeks) and parental (35 weeks) leave and unemployment benefits are available for up to 36 weeks or more. Welfare reform has been less far-reaching than in the United States. For example, while receipt of welfare benefits can be tied to workfare requirements, there is no time limit on eligibility for welfare benefits. Canada thus makes an interesting case for comparison.

The data come from a two-wave online survey of 1,692 residents of Ontario, Canada’s most populous and socially diverse province. The survey includes a large over-sample (941) of respondents who have used needs-based social programs. Respondents were asked about 11 different social programs that differ widely in terms of their design and authority structures. Respondents who had used a given program were asked whether they had ever contacted a government office about the program. Those who had were asked to rate the treatment they received in terms of helpfulness, whether it was fast or slow, whether they were treated with respect and how the treatment made them feel about themselves.

First, we can look at the relationship between participation in each program and various forms of political and civic activity. The test is a tough one because multiple programs are analyzed simultaneously. The findings turn out to be strikingly different from those reported in studies of program use in the United States. There is no evidence that welfare recipients are less likely than other respondents to take part in political and civic activities. This is the case whether we look at party membership, contacting elected officials, signing petitions, taking part in a product boycott or a demonstration, working with others in the community to solve a problem or complaining to local authorities about a problem in the neighborhood. The only exceptions relate to volunteering and, not surprisingly, making a donation to charity

At the same time, there is little evidence that contributory insurance programs have positive effects on political and civic engagement. Like Social Security, these programs are characterized by depersonalized financial relationships with government and they are very visible to recipients. The U.S. literature would tell us that these are the sorts of programs that are most likely to be associated with greater involvement in political and civic activities. However, in Canada, the effects are either very small or non-significant.

Why are the findings for the means-tested programs that involve the most intrusion into and control over recipients’ lives so at odds with some of the negative policy feedback effects reported in the United States? One possibility is that Canadian recipients are less likely to have negative experiences with their case managers or with the agencies responsible for administering these programs. Predictably, though, welfare recipients were the most likely to have reported negative experiences when contacting a government office about the program and recipients of other means-tested benefits were also less likely to have had positive experiences than people receiving tax-related benefits and social insurance benefits. But far from dampening political and civic engagement, negative experiences either have no effect or are associated with an increased propensity to participate.

So why don’t negative program experiences have demobilizing effects on recipients of means-tested benefits in Canada? On the one hand, Canada’s social programs are more generous and the new paternalism has not shaped the design of social programs to the same degree as in the United States.  On the other hand, we need to look beyond the nature of the welfare regime to consider institutional differences and especially the presence of a viable social democratic party.

About the Author: Elisabeth Gidengil is the Hiram Mills Professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal and is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. She specializes in elections, public opinion and voting behavior, political communication, and women and politics research.