The invisible American welfare state

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.

25 Responses to The invisible American welfare state

  1. Josh Wittner February 8, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    The link asks me for login credentials to Aladin. Do I need to attend a WRLC school to get access to this?

  2. Seth February 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Which percentage is reported above?

  3. Sebastian February 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    This is awesome. Here’s the link without gwu proxy:

  4. Rob February 8, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    The article is gated (Sebastian’s comment links only to an abstract), but it appears that Mettler asked participants if they had “used a government social program.” Unless that term was defined, participants could be forgiven for not thinking that taking a mortgage deduction, for example, makes them a user of a government social program.

    Many government programs have had social impacts. The interstate highway system encouraged sprawl. The tax exemptions for children, in some small way, encourage larger families. The ability to file joint tax returns encourages marriage for couples where one partner’s income is disproportionate to the other’s. Are these social programs too?

    It certainly looks like Professor Mettler, with the able assistance of folks like E.J. Dionne, had an axe to grind, and she ground it. This is polemics in the guise of academic research.

  5. Jake H. February 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    “Unless that term was defined, participants could be forgiven for not thinking that taking a mortgage deduction, for example, makes them a user of a government social program.”

    This would seem to be the whole point. It’s not really interesting who should or shouldn’t “be forgiven” – what’s interesting here is the political feedback effects of using certain types of mechanisms to deliver cash assistance (which all of the listed programs are aside from Head Start). It appears that the delivery mechanism has a real impact on whether or not people perceive government programs as such.

  6. Sebastian February 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    Rob – the point of the article isn’t that respondents are/were stupid.

    As Henry explains, Mettler argues that social programs are structured and split up in a way that people don’t view them as “social program” and then start viewing “social programs” as something that doesn’t benefit them. You don’t seem to disagree with at least the first part.

  7. Rob February 8, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Sebastian and Jake, if we define “social program” broadly enough, then just about everything Congress does (with the possible exception of proclaiming National Dairy Goat Awareness Week–and that’s debatable) is a social program. But what does that imply? Should citizens who are “users” of a “social program” like tax exemptions be more accepting of other “social programs”? Have they lost their right to criticize excessive government spending? The whole exercise is tendentious and rather silly–but can we at least agree that someone who gets paid by a state institution to do such research is the beneficiary of a very sweet social program?

  8. Sebastian February 8, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    oh Rob. Too bad, here I thought you were maybe interested in an actual conversation and you turn out to be just a regular troll. (In this case someone who thinks he can judge a paper by its abstract alone).

    I’m sure you’ll be happy to learn, though, that neither Cornell, where she teaches, nor the two foundations that funded parts of her research are state institutions.

  9. will February 8, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I’m sorry, but Medicare and Social Security we pay into. It is pooled and interest is collected on it (supposed to be anyway, but thats another topic). It isn’t supposed to be a burden on anyone else.

    I could go on about why each one of those above the 43.1% are not direct benefit programs .

    Welfare on the other hand is a direct benefit with no prior interest.

    In summery, this is “polemics in the guise of academic research.”

  10. Jake H. February 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    A definition of “social programs” that includes social welfare tax expenditures and other such programs is far from meaningless or unworkable, and it doesn’t include regulatory policies or non-social spending as you imply in your comments. It seems much more problematic to exclude programs from the definition simply because the cash is delivered in a non-traditional way (e.g., through the tax code).

    I don’t see this research as blaming or scolding recipients who aren’t sufficiently grateful. This research is really about the policies themselves. If their non-transparent nature causes recipients (or other citizens, or politicians for that matter) to misunderstand what they are, that could have real political consequences and by extension, policy consequences. Seems worth studying!

  11. Rob February 8, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    Sebastian, apparently your definition of a troll is someone who holds an opinion with which you disagree. That’s really quite sad. How did we reach the point where we extol diversity in all things except diversity of opinion?

    I was under the impression that Cornell receives substantial funding from New York State, a portion of which is used to defray general and administrative expenses of the university. If I’m mistaken about that, I apologize.

  12. Crash February 8, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    I’m sorry, but Medicare and Social Security we pay into. It is pooled and interest is collected on it (supposed to be anyway, but thats another topic). It isn’t supposed to be a burden on anyone else.

    Which is why the implications of this research is even more alarming. We currently have a good size faction of a major political party railing against both of these programs and demanding they be drastically changed or cut. Multiple proposals to this end from both sides of the aisle have been advanced, and the political atmosphere which makes this possible is one in which a good portion of the electorate can’t connect the fact that “government spending” isn’t just waste but includes a lot of programs which they directly benefit from.

  13. Sebastian February 8, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    Rob – you turned into a troll not because of your opinion (neither will’s post nor your first one qualify as trolling, even though I disagree), but by making unnecessarily inflammatory (“someone who gets paid by a state institution to do such research is the beneficiary of a very sweet social program”), uninformed (you say yourself you haven’t read the paper) statements.
    Coming to an academic blog an engaging in lame academics-bashing is pretty much the definition of trolling. Which is why I’ll stop here.

    Cornell receives somewhere around 6% of it’s budget from government sources, in line with other private Universities.

  14. Kate February 9, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    @Sebastian Cornell is a special snowflake. It’s the land grant institution for New York State.

    Four of Cornell’s 7 schools — Architecture, Art, & Planning, Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and Hotel — are private schools. Three of its 7 schools — Agriculture & Life Sciences, Industrial & Labor Relations, and Human Ecology — are public schools.

    From “Founded as both a private university and the land-grant institution of New York State, this distinctive blend of public and private colleges and programs continues to reflect a heritage of egalitarian excellence […]”

    Cornell’s overall budget may be in line with other private universities, and Cornell is generally listed as a private university, but it tends to view and market itself as both public and private.

    I apologize for the tangent.

  15. Sebastian February 9, 2011 at 4:27 am #

    Kate – thanks, that’s interesting and I didn’t know the details.
    But since the department of Government is in the (private) College of A&S, our friend can remain assured that Prof. Mettler isn’t paid her salary with state money 😉

  16. Suzanne Lainson February 9, 2011 at 4:35 am #

    I don’t think a lot of people are going to grasp how significantly life will change until lots of these programs are cut. We’ll start to see it first at the local and state level as services are cut off and as people are laid off, which will impact communities.

  17. chris February 9, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    I don’t see IRAs on there, but their tax advantage is just as much a public expenditure as the mortgage tax break, isn’t it?

  18. PLW February 9, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    I’m with Rob here. The Florida state government chooses not to tax income. Does that mean that everyone living in Florida benefits from a “no income tax” government program?

  19. Nathan February 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Actually, the lack of income tax in Florida, Texas, Wyoming, and other states *is* an economic welfare benefit. Plenty of people move to those states or remain in them because they are not taxed on income and thus retain more of their overall earnings. (E.g., I’ve met several Foreign Service Officers who maintain their official residence in one of these states, so that they are not liable to state income tax, even if they have little to no “real” connection to the states.

    (And, FTR, I am using the economic definition of “welfare”: a focus on the economic well-being of a person, group, or nation. In macro-econ, it’s an increase in real national income. In micro, it’s an increase in utility, which we generally measure in money earned or wealth retained.

    So all of those programs in the table are economic-definition welfare. The problem with using precise scientific terms in political rhetoric….)

  20. Mark B. February 9, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    PLW – I would say no to your Florida example. In this example the state government decides not to levy a tax and this decision applies to everyone in Florida.

    The “social programs” or “incentives” that delivered through the tax system (the crux of the argument above) are a reduction in taxes for a specific group of people based on some choice they have made (buying a house) or behavior they engage in (having children). This form of “welfare” is not given to everyone, just people in those specific situations, just as medicare, social security, food stamps etc. only go to people in specific situations.

    Clearly there are differences between all of the programs I mentioned above and fair and reasonable arguments can be made about the effectiveness and appropriateness of the programs.

    My primary point is this: the common element is that these programs help a specific group of people for a specific reason and therefore should all start on the table for both cuts and expansions. When a signficant number of the electorate do not realize they benefit from a social program (when they in fact do) it makes it difficult to have an honest debate that includes all of the relevant information.

  21. djt February 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    People keeping their own income is not a government benefit. People getting a check with their name on it is a government benefit. A public park, while a government benefit, is publicly held property, is not a government benefit – it’s a public function.


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