Throughout the years, it has become conventional wisdom in social policy literature that universal policies, accessible to all citizens/residents, enjoy higher levels of popular support than selective policies targeted at the poor only. At first sight, the empirical evidence in support of this claim seems convincing. A large number of public opinion studies, conducted in different countries and different years, reveal the same pattern: universally targeted programs, such as most old-age pensions and healthcare systems, consistently receive higher levels of support than selective programs, such as means-tested social assistance and housing allowances. There are, however, two very good reasons why we need further research into the social legitimacy of universal vis-à-vis selective welfare. First, the studies that are typically cited to support the claim that universalism is more popular are inconclusive, because they conflate the institutional design of welfare programs with their respective target groups: the programs that are compared differ not only in terms of their design, but also in terms of the groups they target. Second, there appears to be considerable variation in public support for universalism and selectivism across countries, time, and policy domains. Therefore, the social legitimacy of universal vis-à-vis selective welfare provision remains very much an open question for future research to explore. Based on a unique combination of cross-national, experimental and longitudinal data, this project will reveal under which circumstances -when, where and why- one social policy design option is more popular than the other. In doing so, it makes a vital contribution to ongoing academic and political debates on the institutional design of the future welfare state.
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