Hidden Government Benefits
By SUZANNE METTLER
September 19, 2011
DON’T take at face value the claims that Americans dislike government. Sure, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of Americans said they wanted smaller government and fewer services.
Tea Party activists, the most vocal citizens of our time, powerfully amplify those demands. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of Americans have at some point relied on government programs — and valued them — even though they often fail to recognize that government is the source of the assistance.
A 2008 poll of 1,400 Americans by the Cornell Survey Research Institute found that when people were asked whether they had “ever used a government social program,” 57 percent said they had not. Respondents were then asked whether they had availed themselves of any of 21 different federal policies, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the home-mortgage-interest deduction and student loans. It turned out that 94 percent of those who had denied using programs had benefited from at least one; the average respondent had used four.
Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible.
Individuals’ political views partly account for their perceptions.
In the Cornell poll, a respondent who self-identified as “extremely liberal” was 20 percentage points more likely to acknowledge using a government program than someone who used the same number of programs but was “extremely conservative.” Also, those who believed that the nation spent too much on welfare were less likely to admit that they had used a “government social program,” perhaps because that term had pejorative connotations.
Besides political ideology, the design of policies also influences awareness.
The most visible policies are those that require people to interact frequently or intensively with public officials to qualify for benefits, like food stamps, disability payments and subsidized housing.
Another set of programs, including Medicare, Pell Grants and Social Security retirement benefits, are also fairly visible, though each contains characteristics that can camouflage government’s role.
The man at the town hall meeting in the summer of 2009 who angrily told his congressman, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” might have been in less of a state of denial than many believed: last year, one in four Medicare beneficiaries got their benefits through a private insurance company.
In the case of Social Security, checks are sent directly by the government, making it clear why 56 percent of beneficiaries in the Cornell poll acknowledged the use of a social program. But the denial by the remaining 44 percent is also understandable, given that individuals contributed directly from their paychecks to help finance the program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted on this arrangement, knowing the benefits would be understood as an earned right. That way, he said, “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
The final group of policies, what I call the “submerged state,” is largely invisible because its benefits are channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations. These include the home-mortgage-interest deduction and the exemption from taxes on employer-provided health and retirement benefits. Using “submerged” benefits is nearly as common as using more visible policies.
Even personal encounters with the submerged state fail to make most people recognize that they have benefited from government. The greater the number of visible policies an individual had used, the more likely he or she was to agree that “government programs have helped me in times of need,” but greater use of policies of the submerged state had no comparable impact.
Likewise, the greater the number of visible policies used, the higher the rate of agreement that “government has provided me opportunities to improve my standard of living”; by contrast, those who had used more submerged policies were more likely to disagree. The hidden policies left beneficiaries with the false impression that their economic security was owed merely to their own efforts.
The submerged state obscures the role of government and exaggerates that of the market. It leaves citizens unaware of the source of programs and unable to form meaningful opinions about them.
Until political leaders reveal government benefits for what they are by talking openly about them, we cannot have an honest discussion about spending, taxes or deficits. The stipulation in the new health care reform law that W-2 forms must indicate the value of untaxed employer-provided health care benefits is a step in the right direction. The government should also provide “receipts” that inform people of the size of each benefit they get through the tax code.
The threat to democracy today is not the size of government but rather the hidden form that so much of its growth has taken. If those who assume government has never helped them could see how it has, it might help defuse our polarized political climate and reinvigorate informed citizenship.
Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell, is the author of “The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on September 20, 2011, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: Our .