Political Economy

The invisible American welfare state

Feb 8 '11

Suzanne Mettler’s “piece”:http://journals.cambridge.org.proxygw.wrlc.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=7874752 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 Coverdell 64.3

Home mortgage interest deduction 60.0

Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6

Student Loans 53.3

Child and Dependent Tax Credit 51.7

Earned income tax credit 47.1
Social Security – Retirement and Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
SSI – Supplementary Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4

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.