Revealing the Submerged State

The hidden quality of social welfare benefits in the tax code means that many people are largely unaware of them, and have no idea of their overall impact. How could these policies of the submerged state be revealed, and what difference would it make? Matt Guardino and I created a web-based experiment to test the impact of providing people with small amounts of basic information about such policies. We found that it had two basic effects: (1) people who expressed no opinion on such policies in the absence of information became significantly more likely to do so after receiving information; (2) after the provision of information, people adopted views that made sense given their political values and their interests, as defined by income. Overall, opposition grew to the policies that aid predominantly high income people, while support grew for policies that aid low income people.

One part of the study, for example, first asked people whether they support or oppose the Home Mortgage Income Deduction. Then subjects were distracted by being asked some questions about sports and entertainment. Next, they received an information treatment consisting of the following statement and graph:

Now here is some information about the federal Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. This policy is a tax benefit for homeowners. It allows them to reduce the amount they pay in income taxes based on the amount they pay in interest on their home mortgages.
The people who benefit most from this policy are those who have the highest incomes. In 2005, a large majority of the benefits went to people who lived in households that made $100,000 or more that year.

The figure below shows how people’s views changed, pre- and post-treatment. Among those with low and moderate incomes, support dropped off and opposition grew. This change occurred just on the basis of this small intervention of information. This, and the other results, suggests that if the effects of the submerged state were made more apparent through sustained and regular communication, people would have different opinions than they do presently.

In addition, the existence and effects of now-hidden policies could be made more apparent to Americans through numerous changes in policy design and delivery. I discuss these in some detail in The Submerged State. Revealing the submerged state can help citizens understand government’s role in society, enabling them to form meaningful opinions about policies and to engage in action to express their views. In the context of contemporary governance, such efforts are essential to reinvigorating democracy.

2 Responses to Revealing the Submerged State

  1. Josh November 7, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Your book is on my shelf waiting for when I have time to devour it but I have a question in the meantime: The above argument sounds as if you’re pointing to the method of subsidy delivery (via the tax code as opposed to an explicit grant) as the mechanism through which the state becomes submerged and program support varies. Yet from these surveys, it looks like the variation in support can be better explained by the amount of information the voters hold. Could you clarify the argument?

  2. Suzanne Mettler November 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    Hi Josh. Thanks for the question. The broader argument of The Submerged State emphasizes how the design and delivery of social welfare benefits affects citizens’ awareness of them and the politics that grows up around them. I argue that benefits channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations elude most Americans, far more so than more direct policies. The submerged policies are extremely costly and they disproportionately aid affluent people, failing to mitigate economic inequality. Yet, they are very difficult to reform precisely because they are so hidden: they leave ordinary citizens unaware and unmobilized at the same time as they energize the vested interest groups that benefit from them; these groups routinely mobilize to keep them intact.

    But as you note, today’s post is about how information can make a difference. Although policy design and delivery evoke powerful effects, this experimental evidence—drawn from Chapter 3 of the book—indicates that if people received more information about these policies and who they benefit, it would allow them to form opinions about them that make sense given their values and interests.

    In the book I make several suggestions about how the existence and effects of submerged policies can be made more evident to citizens, and one of them, as suggested here, is through provision of clear and concise information.