A common assumption in political economy is that voters are self-regarding maximizers of material goods, choosing their preferred level of social spending accordingly. In contrast, students of American social policy have emphasized the key role of an other-regarding motive that makes support for social transfers conditional on the perceived deservingness of recipients. The two motives often conflict as large portions of the poor (rich) find recipients undeserving (deserving). Under what conditions might one motive trump the other? I argue that material self-interest overruns perceptions of deservingness when the share of income affected by social transfers is high. Using European data, I show that low (high) income individuals are less (more) likely to be driven by considerations of deservingness. This framework has important macro-level implications: the more working-age benefits are evenly spread across income groups, the less likely considerations of deservingness will permeate public debates on welfare state reform.
Social policy preferences Deservingness Self-interest Heuristic Welfare state reform