Expert Commentary

Who says they have ever used a government social program? The role of policy visibility

2012 paper from Cornell University on the disjunction between citizens who acknowledge using government social programs and the number who actually do.

Through ways both subtle and obvious, government touches the lives of most Americans. There are both indirect social programs, such as the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction and the Earned Income Tax Credit — which are in a sense “hidden” in the tax code — as well as direct and highly visible programs such as Social Security and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. But as scholars at Cornell University point out in a 2012 paper, “We know remarkably little about how people experience public policies and whether they are even aware of or credit government‘s role in providing them.”

Of course, government social programs in general have become politically radioactive in the past few decades. That has not always been the case. The Cornell scholars point to a 1994 study on the genealogy of the word “dependency” in American culture; the study establishes that language around the American welfare state was once more benign but has become increasingly fraught with negative meaning. The 2012 Cornell paper, “Who Says They Have Ever Used a Government Social Program? The Role of Policy Visibility,” analyzes survey data from the 2008 Social and Governmental Issues and Participation Study. It asked a random national sample of 1,000 Americans about their views on government programs and compared it to their actual use of specific programs over their lifetimes.

The findings include:

  • Among the 21 federal social programs asked about, respondents on average had taken advantage of 4.47 programs. Seventy-three percent had accessed at least one direct program, and 87% had used an indirect program. Only 4% said they had not utilized at least one program, either direct or indirect.
  • As for indirect programs — what the scholars refer to as “submerged policies,” which have lower visibility among the citizenry — respondents used an average of 2.53 programs. These included the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction; the HOPE and Lifetime Learning Tax Credits; Child and Dependent Care Tax Credits; 529 (Qualified Tuition Program) or Coverdell Education Savings Account (education IRAs); the Earned Income Tax Credit; and “usage of student loans and employer subsidized health and retirement benefits.”
  • When asked whether they had “ever used a government social program,” however, the majority responded that they had not. Among those who said “no,” the average number of government programs they had actually used was 3.8. Only 5% of that group, it turned out, actually did not use a government program of any kind. For those who acknowledged accessing programs, the average used was 5.3.
  • Even with highly visible programs, many respondents did not acknowledge their use: “In the case of Social Security Retirement and Survivors‘ benefits and Medicare, for example, 45 and 41 percent of beneficiaries, respectively, replied in the negative to the general-government social programs usage question.” Though it may seem that citizens are distinguishing between so-called “earned right” programs and perceived “handouts,” the data suggest that this is not true, and that Medicare and Social Security recipients are actually more likely to acknowledge using a government program than users of other programs.
  • Overall, the “number of direct social benefits one receives over the course of life is related to race, age, and income. Specifically, African Americans, those with lower incomes, and older individuals are more likely to have received more of these benefits.”
  • The data also indicate that “racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to benefit from direct benefits and less likely to benefit from submerged benefits indicates another set of cleavages in citizens‘ experiences of social policies. These findings illuminate a stratification of social citizenship in the United States that has not been recognized previously: between those whose social benefits emanate mostly from the submerged state and those whose flow mostly from visible governance.”
  • In sum, the “likelihood of responding that one has used a government social program increases especially when individuals receive more direct social benefits, when they have a greater comprehension of how government works, and when they identify as liberals. Conversely, the likelihood of responding in the negative increases especially when one receives more submerged benefits, has limited political knowledge, or is a conservative.”

The authors conclude, “Over the past thirty years, not only does American political discourse contain a more persistent anti-government message, but also, increasingly, many citizens benefit from expensive government social policies that obscure government‘s role in subsidizing and regulating them. As a result of both trends, many people fail to recognize government‘s role in providing for their economic security, health care, and educational opportunities.”

Tags: campaign issue, Social Security

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