The invisible American welfare state

by Henry Farrell on February 8, 2011 · 25 comments

in Political Economy,Public opinion

Suzanne Mettler’s piece in Perspectives on Politics (free access to PDF) has many fascinating arguments about the political consequences of public ignorance about the benefits that people receive from the state. But this table is jawdropping. It shows the percentage of people who (a) benefit from various programs, and (b) claim in response to a government survey that they ‘have not used a government social program.’

529 or Coverdell64.3
Home mortgage interest deduction60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit59.6
Student Loans53.3
Child and Dependent Tax Credit51.7
Earned income tax credit47.1
Social Security – Retirement and Survivors44.1
Pell Grants43.1
Unemployment Insurance43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill)41.7
G.I. Bill40.3
Head Start37.2
Social Security Disability28.7
SSI - Supplementary Security Income28.2
Welfare/Public Assistance27.4
Government Subsidized Housing27.4
Food Stamps25.4

Mettler’s basic argument is that because the US welfare state is ‘submerged’ and sliced up among a variety of different programs, many of which operate indirectly rather than directly, it is mostly invisible to US citizens. This has obvious political consequences – ‘government social programs’ are equated to ‘welfare’ and stigmatized. The fact that nearly half of Social Security recipients do not believe that they have benefited from a government social program, and that the same is true of some 40% of G.I. Bill beneficiaries and Medicare recipients is a rather extraordinary one.

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