Senior citizens don’t hesitate to speak up for their Social Security benefits. Why don’t poor people flock to the polls to make known their opinions on welfare? The answer lies partly in how they are treated by the welfare system itself.

“Your experience in interacting with government programs affects how you think about yourself and how you think about yourself as a citizen,” says Sarah Bruch, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “And that can affect your...

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