In recent decades, Americans have become increasingly angry at the federal government, anger that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House. And yet, more Americans than ever are benefiting from government social programs, many of which the Trump administration is actively working to destroy. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls this paradox “the government-citizen disconnect.” Such is the title of Mettler’s new book, which draws on original survey data to explore how the use of 21 federal social policies is connected to Americans’ attitudes about government. She finds that 96 percent of Americans have used at least one of these policies. But partly because of policy design—which makes means-tested programs for the poor more visible than policies for the rich hidden in the tax code—many Americans don’t recognize the value of government social programs. Critically, wealthier Americans—who tend to exert more influence over national politics—often don’t see themselves as benefiting from government support.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Kalena Thomhave: Let’s start with the title of your book, The Government-Citizen Disconnect. What exactly is that?
Suzanne Mettler: There is a growing gap between Americans’ attitudes about government and the extent to which they rely upon it in their everyday lives. If you look at all sorts of measures of trust in government, and people’s feelings about whether government is responsive to them, Americans had pretty positive attitudes on these things back in the middle of the 20th century. These attitudes have gotten much worse over time, and that’s fairly well known. But what’s less well known is that Americans rely upon the federal government for economic security, education, health care—all sorts of social benefits—more than ever before.
That’s the puzzle: How can people be relying on government more than ever, and yet disliking it more than ever?
What’s the difference between what you call “submerged” and “visible” social policies?
When we think of social policies, we tend to think of policies where government’s role is more direct and visible, such as unemployment insurance, food stamps, or Social Security.
What I mean by the submerged policies are those that are either located in the tax code that allow people to pay less in taxes, or policies that are delivered by employers. They’re not very visible to most beneficiaries—government’s role in them is not visible. Some of our largest and most expensive social benefits are the tax-exempt, employer-provided health and retirement benefits that lots of employees receive. People don’t tend to think of government as having a role in these policies, but government subsidizes them.
You write that “we are all beneficiaries now.” What do you mean?
We often have this impression that it’s only low-income people who are using social policy. But in fact what I find is that people across the income spectrum use plenty of social policies. For one thing, people’s circumstances change over time. If you ask people about the policies they’ve used in their lives, obviously, people with low incomes are much more likely to have used means-tested policies. But going up higher in the income spectrum, the average person has typically used one of those means-tested policies at some point in their life, except at the very highest income level.
The other phenomenon that’s going on here is that a lot of our social policies distribute most of their benefits upwards to higher-income people. In my analysis, I include policies that are in the tax code but serve the same purpose as direct, visible policies. For example, the home mortgage-interest deduction helps people who own homes or are paying down their mortgage to have some help with housing. That’s really serving the same purpose as housing subsidies for low-income people, we just deliver it through a different kind of mechanism. We permit people to pay less in taxes rather than giving them a check to help them pay for their housing, but from an accounting perspective, that’s a wash when it comes to the impact on the federal Treasury.
I find that, on average, Americans in the highest income group and the lowest income group have used the same total number of benefits. They differ in terms of the types of policies they’ve used, whether they’re submerged or visible, but overall they’ve used the same number.
How do people’s experiences with either submerged programs or visible programs affect their views of government?
People who have used more visible programs tend to be appreciative of those programs and tend to have more positive attitudes about government on some indicators. For example, they’re more likely to feel that government helped them in times of need or provided opportunities for them to improve their standard of living. Whereas people who use these policies that are part of what I call the submerged state, typically their attitudes about government are not influenced at all by those policies. They simply don’t connect the dots that government has done something for them.
So this gets back to the broader puzzle of the government-citizen disconnect. That’s what I was really trying to understand, what explains this disconnect? I thought that the design of policies would make a big difference. It is the case that the use of submerged policies does not have an impact on people’s attitudes about government. What surprised me was how little impact even the more visible policies have. I mentioned they have an impact on a couple of indicators, but only a couple. They were really missing as a shaper of people’s views of government on several other dimensions.
So then what does make a difference in people’s views of government?
The most consistent explanation I found was people’s attitudes about welfare. People who have very unfavorable views about welfare seem to extrapolate from their views of welfare to government generally, and they have much more negative views about government.
The way that I understand this is that people who view welfare unfavorably think that government is doing something unfair. They think it’s giving special treatment to people who are less deserving. In interviews that I did, people would explain that they themselves were struggling to get by, but they made just a little too much to qualify for various social benefits. They felt for themselves and their families that life was hard and there were declining opportunities. And yet they had this perception that government was helping out somebody else.
Past studies have shown that racial animosity helps explain the disdain for government social programs.
I was so stunned by this factor that showed up in all my analyses about welfare favorability, so I decided to dig in and see what explains people’s attitudes about welfare. I found that there were two determinants. One is race, as various scholars have shown in the past. People who are white have more unfavorable attitudes toward welfare than people of color. But I also found that income mattered. Specifically, people who are in the broad middle class had much more negative attitudes about welfare than lower-income people—and high-income people did not differ significantly in their views from low-income people. Say someone is African American and middle-income; they are more likely to disapprove of welfare than a low-income African American. Among whites of either group, there’s a higher disapproval of welfare, but much higher among middle-income whites than low-income whites.
We know that Trump is attacking welfare, promoting work requirements and other restrictions across the board. You wrote in a recent article for The New York Times, “The Trump administration’s new initiative amounts to a marketing campaign to brand key safety net policies as ‘welfare,’ undermining their legitimacy.”
So many people react negatively when asked about welfare, that’s why it is politically a successful strategy for conservatives to try to stigmatize more policies, painting them with that term “welfare.” The Trump administration is continuing this; the policies [that] they want to alter and introduce more work requirements in include food stamps, Medicaid, and rental subsidies for low-income people.
But if people stop to think about the fact that so many of them have relied on these policies that are under attack, or their friends and families and community members have, I think that strategy actually could be problematic.
You present Kentucky’s changed political landscape as a case study. Why Kentucky?
There are many states that over time have come to rely much more on federal social benefits, and yet are sending to Congress people who want to scale back these same policies. Kentucky is a state that epitomizes that.
In 1970, 10 percent of the average Kentuckian’s income came from federal social benefits. By 2015, that was up to 23 percent. In fact, there are many counties in Kentucky where well over 30, 40, even 50 percent of the average person’s income comes from federal social benefits.
As recently as the 1980s, Kentucky was sending mostly moderate Democrats to Congress. These included some who were known for really steering progressive legislation through Congress. By the early 1990s, Kentucky was sending moderate Republicans to Congress. And then by the mid-1990s, the Republicans from Kentucky became more and more conservative, and in time the state was sending members of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus—people who are trying to introduce work requirements in food stamps and that kind of thing.
How does social benefit use intersect with political participation?
There’s a participatory tilt. People who have used lots of visible policies are less likely to participate in politics (voting and otherwise) than those who have used more of the policies with a submerged design, where government’s role is less clear. That’s simply for well-known reasons having to do with the role of income and education in shaping who gets mobilized to participate in politics and who has the resources and the time to do so.
Whether people are aware of government’s role in aiding them and their families undoubtedly affects their political activity and the choices they make. There’s much greater representation of people who don’t think about government’s role in their lives than people who are more appreciative of what government’s done for them. And the former are less likely to be supportive of expanded social provisions.
Submerged policies lessen stigma and they’re typically easier to apply for, but visible policies show people how exactly the government is intervening in their lives. What type of program, then, is best to promote?
Ideally our policies would be more visible and would showcase government’s role. Even if we want to channel policies through the tax code, we could make government’s role more visible. For the average taxpayer, we could make government’s role somewhat more visible through sending some kind of a “tax receipt” that says the amount of the benefits that people got from different policies that they utilized.
What should we be doing to combat the government-citizen disconnect?
It’s important for organizations to interact with citizens and to make it evident to them how government benefits them, hurts them, or leaves them out.
AARP does this for retired people who are using social security and Medicare. It makes them aware of what’s at stake if government were to scale back those policies.
Labor unions did that for a large portion of the American public in the middle of 20th century—about one in four Americans belonged to them. But now labor union membership is greatly reduced, to less than half of what it once was. And so people are much less likely to have those experiences.
What do you hope is the biggest takeaway from your book?
There is a great irony that conservatives, starting in the 1980s, began to really campaign against government, particularly against social policies. All of these decades have passed in the meanwhile, and they only succeeded in really decimating one policy (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which became Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). But what they’ve succeeded at is something I think they never really intended: They have made a lot of Americans doubt our government and be really angry at government more broadly. We’re at a point now where people are willing to take great risks with what were long-established principles about how democracy functions in the U.S.
Ultimately, I think democracy itself is endangered by these anti-government views. Government is what we share in common that gives us the collective capacity to solve any problem that we think needs to be solved, whether it’s improving infrastructure or dealing with climate change. If we’re against government, we’re against ourselves.