White, Conservative, Religious … and Aid Skeptical

by Miles D. Williams, University of Illinois

In 2018, U.S. President Donald J. Trump gave an address to the United Nations General Assembly where he described making migrants’ countries “great again” as a solution to minimizing future immigration to the U.S. and to other industrialized countries. Though the sentiment clearly channels the now ubiquitous “MAGA” slogan that served as Trump’s and his supporters’ rallying cry, many leaders and policymakers across the developed world echo a similar message.

This attitude represents more than political rhetoric; it has real consequences for foreign policy. As a 2015 study published in International Organization shows, more than 20 industrialized countries disproportionately target foreign aid to developing countries that are major historic senders of migrants. This relationship, moreover, is accentuated when donors have more restrictive immigration policies. In short, wealthy nations don’t want more migrants coming over their border in search of work – so they send direct payments to those countries to try and improve their financial situation and reduce immigration.

However, while reluctance among key decision-makers to admit more migrants translates to a policy of targeting foreign aid when and where the threat of greater migration is greatest, do citizens of foreign aid donor countries support this use of aid? To answer this question, I turned to a 2014 survey of 1,289 U.S. citizens fielded by the Laboratory for the Study of American Values at Stanford University. Analysis of this survey appeared in a recent study published in International Studies Quarterly.

What I found suggests that everyday citizens fail to make the same connection between foreign aid and immigration that their leaders make. As it turns out, the demographic most averse to immigrants and refugees is also the one most skeptical of foreign aid spending: white, conservative, and religious respondents.

This survey asks a key question: do respondents support cutting or not cutting a hypothetical foreign aid program? The survey prompts respondents with a vignette describing an ongoing program and its cost. Individuals are then asked whether they support cutting the program.

The 2014 survey also includes demographic variables, like race (white, black, or latino) and political ideology (conservative or liberal). Further, while it unfortunately doesn’t contain a comprehensive suite of self-reported religious affiliations, the survey does ask respondents to rate the importance of religion along a four point scale. Using responses to this question, I code respondents as unreligious if they rate religion as “not important” or “not too important,” and as religious if they rate religion as “somewhat” or “very important.”

With these variables, it is possible to piece together a respondent profile that approximates an influential demographic in U.S. politics: white Protestant evangelicals. This group, compared to others, is among the most opposed to the U.S. admitting or taking responsibility for refugees (about 68% say the U.S. should not be responsible for housing refugees). If this (or an approximate) group is also skeptical of foreign aid, this suggests that a policy of targeting aid to migrant sending countries may lack support among everyday citizens.

As it turns out, only 36.9% of white, religious, and conservative respondents in the 2014 survey supported sustaining a hypothetical foreign aid program. The next least supportive group was unreligious white conservatives who supported the aid program at a rate of 37.1%. The breakdown of support by race/ethnicity, political ideology, and religiousness is shown in the below figure.

What is perhaps most interesting when considering this figure is that across demographic groups, (whether white, black, or Latino) moving from the religious and conservative bucket to the unreligious and liberal one corresponds to an appreciable increase in support for foreign aid. Moreover, even conservative and religious black and Latino respondents supported aid by much larger margins than their white counterparts (75.3% and 57.1% respectively).

The contrast between white religious conservative respondents and the rest of the sample is brought into even sharper relief in the next figure shown below. This group’s support falls well below the remaining sample average for support for foreign aid (which stands at approximately 60%). Further, as revealed by the 95% confidence intervals, religious, conservative, and white support for aid is statistically distinguishable from the rest of the sample. In short, this group’s low support for foreign aid is truly unique.

The 2014 survey is useful for an additional reason—it lets us ask yet another interesting question: what happens when white religious conservatives have ties abroad? Does this moderate their resistance to foreign aid? Surprisingly, it does not. The survey contains a variable that indicates whether a respondent has no, weak, or strong transnational ties. It is constructed from responses to three questions: (1) was a respondent born outside the U.S., (2) do they send remittances abroad, and (3) do they have friends and family living abroad. Individuals are treated as having strong ties if they respond affirmatively to either question 1 or 2, as having weak ties if they only respond affirmatively to question 3, and as having no ties if they respond negatively to all.

Unsurprisingly, strong ties abroad are rare for this group. Only 43 respondents, or almost 9% of religious white conservatives, are classified as having strong transnational ties. 103, or 21%, have weak ties, and 336, or almost 70%, have no transnational ties. Compare this to the rest of the sample, for which 151, or just under 20%, report strong ties abroad.

As might be expected, for the rest of the sample stronger ties abroad correspond to greater support for foreign aid. However, among the white, conservative, and religious respondents, stronger ties are associated with even lower levels of support.

To test the robustness of this relationship with a little more rigor, I estimated the impact of transnational ties on support for aid among this group with the help of a multiple regression model, in which I controlled for a number of other demographic variables (gender, income, education, age, and employment). The below figure shows how the relationship between being a religious white conservative and support for aid changes with strength of ties abroad. As is clear from the estimates, individuals with strong ties abroad are even less supportive of foreign aid when they are white, religious, and conservative than if they had no ties at all.

This pattern is puzzling to say the least and worth further investigation. However, the overall results are clear, religious white conservatives stand out for their dreary support for foreign aid. This has two implications.

First, it hints that the justification for using aid as a tool of migration policy lacks currency among the general public. Groups most skeptical of allowing more immigration also are uniquely unsupportive of foreign aid. If policymakers think promoting development abroad is a good strategy to minimize demand for immigration, everyday citizens either don’t buy it or are unaware.

Second, these findings are consistent with other research that shows political and policy attitudes among white religious conservatives are driven primarily by their white and conservative identities; not so much their religiousness (or in this case, we can probably safely say Christianness). As prior research has shown, evangelicals lack strong support for altruistic and humanitarian aid policies; and this, despite the fact that many Christian nongovernmental organizations depend on U.S. aid dollars to support their missions abroad. The results in the first figure I discussed above align with this argument quite well. Whether conservative white respondents were religious or irreligious made little difference for support of aid. With rounding, both groups supported aid at equal rates: 37%. Meanwhile, for black and Latino conservative respondents, religiousness did make a difference (though in opposite directions).

Miles D. Williams is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can find his website here. Code and data to replicate this analysis can be found on his GitHub.

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