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Abstract

The primacy of self-interested individuals is often regarded as the appropriate basis for US social spending decisions. One thread of this argument has advanced age-based self-interest and politically powerful elderly to explain why Social Security and Medicare have thrived in a policy environment that has seen retrenchment in other programs. We argue that crude self-interest and individual programs considered in isolation are insufficient to understand social spending preferences. We use General Social Survey data to contrast conventional and critical explanations for understanding the role of age in preferences for social spending. Factor analyses demonstrate that social spending preferences cluster into conceptually distinctive domains. This supports our argument that social spending orientations are more complex than conventional analyses of age-based preferences for single-issue discrete programs like education, welfare or Social Security suggest. Overemphasis on age group differences misconstrues the role of age in spending orientations and whether preferences are more plausibly labeled as selfinterested or altruistic. Considering how age, period and cohorts dfferences impact social spending domains improves understanding of how the life course influences social spending preferences.

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