Thursday, July 28, 2011

Most Who Get Government Benefits Fail to See Themselves as Government Beneficiaries

Clarence Page had a great column on July 20th that took off from the incongruity of Michele Bachmann ranting against government programs while her own family has benefited from them significantly. But the main point of the column was that Bachmann is not untypical of thousands of other Americans who also fail to see how much they benefit from government programs.

The only caveat I would raise is that there are many different kinds of government benefits -- from those to which people should feel entitled because they have specifically paid into them, to those that help people who have served their country in the military, to those which aim to promote home ownership and education, to those designed to help the poor through expenditure of other peoples' tax revenue. Given this variety, it is possible for people to value some of the programs more than others. But otherwise, Page's point stands. Some of his paragraphs follow:

A substantial number of Americans who say they support cutting government programs don't realize just how much they benefit from them.

Many who receive government benefits either don't believe or don't understand that they are government beneficiaries, according to a study last year by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler.

Those who incorrectly identified themselves as not receiving government help included 60 percent of homeowners who qualify for a mortgage-interest deduction, 53 percent of those who hold government-backed student loans, 47 percent of those who qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 40 percent of Medicare recipients and 27 percent of Americans receiving welfare or Medicaid benefits.

As a mortgage payer, I was not surprised to hear that homeowners and student loan borrowers were least likely to see themselves as receiving a government benefit. After all, we work hard to pay off our loans. That makes it harder for us to think of tax breaks and government loan guarantees as "benefits," a term that today's political conversations tend to equate with "handouts" — even in some liberal circles.

Cornell's Mettler refers to such popular programs and policies as "the submerged state," a social welfare system that is virtually hidden in a wide array of popular policies aimed at incentivizing and subsidizing incomes, education, home-owning and other productive activities.

The reasons for the camouflage are political and practical. For example, liberals and conservatives alike find the Earned Income Tax Credit to be more popular than welfare payments as a way to fight poverty, reward work and help the poor become economically independent. But it's still a government program, even if almost half of its recipients don't realize it.

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