Over the past several years there has been a striking increase in policymakers' attention to health care reform. This paper explores whether there has been a corresponding shift in popular attitudes and identifies factors that may have changed these attitudes. The first part of the analysis relies on survey data collected between 1975 and 1989 to estimate a set of regression models, relating support for federal involvement in health care, antipoverty programs, and general domestic policies to a set of sociodemographic characteristics. Relative to other federal policies, support for health initiatives grew over this period. During this same period, long-standing differences in support between rich and poor, old and young, educated and uneducated, all narrowed for health care, though they did not for other types of federal policies. The second part of this study explores motivations that might account for these patterns. We identify a half dozen ways in which health care may be viewed as “different,” that is, more or less appropriate for federal action. Analysis of survey data from 1987 suggests that there are relatively small differences in the attitudes and perceptions that motivate support for federal health initiatives, relative to federal domestic policies in general. However, there are more striking differences between health programs and more overtly redistributive policies. Compared to redistributive federal programs, support for federal health initiatives are (a) less identified with racial minorities or economically disadvantaged groups, (b) less constrained by notions of individual responsibility, (c) more closely associated with concerns about equal opportunity in American society, and (d) somewhat more constrained by choices between federal and local government. These patterns persist whether or not respondents are politically active and whether they report themselves to be liberal or conservative. We suggest that the growing support for federal intervention in health care, relative to other social policies, is in part an inadvertent by-product of ideological positions popularized during the Reagan and Bush administrations. We draw from these results some predictions about the course of the ongoing debate over federal health policies.

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