The Policy Design Effect: Proximity as a Micro-level Explanation of the Effect of Policy Designs on Social Benefit Attitudes



Public and individual support for a policy is affected by how it is designed – that is, how eligibility is determined. This results in universal policies being more popular than contributions-based policies, which in turn enjoy more public support than the selective kind. The literature on welfare attitudes have argued that this ‘policy design effect’ can be explained by a combination of self-interest patterns, public perceptions of the recipient group and whether eligibility under the policy is perceived as fair or arbitrary. The explanations, however, lack micro-level theory and testing as to why the design of a policy affects individual and public support. This article seeks to explain this policy design effect by theoretically outlining and testing how being proximate to recipients of a social benefit affects attitudes towards the benefit. A survey of attitudes towards spending on five social benefits in Denmark shows a large impact on attitudes from being proximate to recipients under selective policies, little or no impact from universal policies and a pattern that falls in-between for the contributions-based policy. This article thus provides micro-level evidence for the different impacts on attitudes depending on the design of a policy, and a possible explanation for why the design impacts attitudes differently.