Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Too many Americans ignorant about their use of government programs

How do you argue about the size of government with someone who hates the government but cashes a government check?


As government-hating members of government last week debated the best way to drive the economy off a cliff in the name of austerity and personal freedom, the liberal blogosphere became abuzz about a 2010 study that seemed to explain from where the government haters drew their political support – ignorant Americans.

Ignorant is not used lightly here nor is it meant to be pejorative. It simply is the best word to describe the stunning fact that nearly half of Americans receiving government benefits don’t recognize the benefit as coming from the government.

The study’s author, Suzanne Mettler, a Cornell professor of American Institutions, attempted to explain the difficulties the Obama Administration faced in trying to reframe the debate about the effect of government social spending on the economy and on the quality of life of all Americans. [Read the study: The Submerged State]

Mettler argues that most of the effects of social spending are hidden, which she calls the “submerged state.”

To illustrate the difficulty President Obama would have – and is having – in surfacing the submerged state so that we can have a rational discussion about it, she included the results of a 2008 government study asking recipients of government social spending if they had ever used a government social program.

The results are an indictment of American civic literacy.

To wit, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 41 percent of military veterans, 43 percent of unemployment recipients, 40 percent of Medicare recipients, 43 percent of college Pell Grant recipients and 27 percent of welfare recipients all said they had never used a government social program.

But those programs are not the submerged state, as Mettler describes, instead they were included to illustrate that even obvious government programs are not so obvious to their millions of beneficiaries.

Her main point had to do with other, hidden forms of government spending, such as the home mortgage interest tax deduction. Six out of every 10 respondents to the survey didn’t recognize the deduction as government social spending.

But it is. The home-owning industry is the engine that drives our economy and the government spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year subsidizing it through tax deductions and government-backed loans. If not for government intervention in the housing market homes would be vastly more expensive, loans harder to get and the sizes of homes much smaller.

Mettler’s study helps show how entwined the federal government has become in American society. The government is everywhere. It cannot be drowned in a bathtub, as anti-tax warrior Grover Norquist wants, without drowning the rest of us in the process.

We have spent ourselves into a fiscal cavern. Our debt is enormous and must be reduced yet our economy teeters on a precipice so dearly that any drastic reduction in government spending or drastic increase in taxation could tip it into the abyss.

The solution requires reasoned, rational debate to craft a long-term plan to extricate us from the hole we’ve dug.

But as we saw last week, it’s hard to reason with ignorance.

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