Op-Ed: Informing Americans About Their Participation in Federal Social Programs

Graph via cornell.edu

By Jeff Bartelli, Staff Editor

In recent months, Suzanne Mettler has published a number of op-eds and blog posts promoting her new book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy. The book reveals that many Americans who benefit from government social programs do not realize they receive any such aid. This ignorance applies to programs as visible as Social Security and more invisible programs like the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. Ultimately, Mettler points out that President Obama has fulfilled a number of his campaign promises in changing how government benefits are distributed to the people.

The reason people are so unimpressed by his accomplishments, Mettler argues (pdf), is that many of the changes he enacted are to invisible, or “submerged,” programs that the average citizen does not think of. For example, the chart above shows the percentage of federal program beneficiaries who claim to have never used a federal social program. As you can see, there is a great amount of confusion about how citizens benefit from federal policies. Eliminating this confusion should be a high priority for Congress and the White House. But how could this be done?

Several years ago, the Social Security Administration began sending out an annual Social Security Statement. These statements provided information about the amount paid into Social Security and the benefits each person could expect based on their contributions. Furthermore, a recent study (pdf) showed that people who received a Social Security Statement showed more knowledge of and confidence in the program. Unfortunately, the SSA discontinued the mailing of these statements earlier this year in an effort to save money. However, the idea of sending a statement about one federal program could be expanded to cover other federal programs as well. Perhaps a policy package could be crafted that would create a framework for letting every American know how they are personally benefiting from federal (and even state) social programs.

The general idea goes like this: each year – say six months after the tax filing deadline in April – each citizen would receive a statement in the mail that lists the top 30 Federal social programs and indicates to what extent the citizen benefited from each program. Distributing this information to each American would certainly help people realize what their government is actually doing for them. Hopefully, this information would also encourage people to take a greater interest in how and where government is spending tax dollars.

Such a policy package would face opposition from certain factions on the right and left. Providing factual information to the public would significantly erode support for efforts to eliminate or expand federal social programs. But many people on the right and left could support this policy as well. Though providing program participation information to the public may make it harder to modify or eliminate programs, it will not change the fact that some people simply want a smaller government and other people will want to change or improve existing programs. Ultimately, a policy of informing the public about their participation in social programs may not drastically change the political landscape. However, Americans will benefit from greater information and that is a goal that everybody can defend.

3 responses to “Op-Ed: Informing Americans About Their Participation in Federal Social Programs

  1. Some of the so-called “benefits” are not really benefits or can only be considered benefits if you’ve been smoking a lot of weed and live on another planet. Just look at the top three listed. All involve the government NOT taking more money from you in the form of taxes. If my overall tax rate gets lowered, I don’t consider it as the government giving me a “benefit” and I seriously doubt very many people would.

    A couple other points . . .

    The first is between what is seen and not seen. Welfare handouts are visible. The perverse incentives they create . . . not so much, even though they exist. This includes a disinclination to work and an inclination to continue engaging in adverse behaviors because you know the government has got your back. I know many people like to think the poor are all honorable, hard working and virtuous people who are simply victims of the “system” or “the rich” or “corporations” (as opposed to reaping the consequence of their own freely chosen life choices), but the fact is the majority of poor are poor either because of bad decision-making (i.e. using drugs or committing crimes when you know you shouldn’t) or are only there temporarily, like Duke students who qualify as “poor” due to lack of income yet will go on to make beau coup cash after graduation (minus the women’s studies and sociology majors, naturally).

    Similarly there is also opportunity cost. Money spent by big government loses some effectiveness via transaction costs (the overpaid bureaucrat who would starve on the outside and who does not produce value commensurate with his or her pay) and in other uses, perhaps more highly valued to society, that the money could have been spent on. Money spent “helping” others in the form of social security or other handouts could be put to better uses, either by the government or by the individuals who it has been redistributed from (like the evil 53% of the population who actually do pay taxes). It doesn’t appear that the author takes any of this into account when determing whether or not somthing is acutally a benefit. A full cost/benefit analysis isn’t done and could very easily end up being a net negative to society when the whole picture is looked at.

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  3. You had me until you decided to break down “poor” people into only two categories. According to you, poor people are poor by their own choosing. They are druggy criminals who deserve to be poor and scratching at your feet for pennies, right? Well, lets not forget the millions of people who lost their jobs, who subsequently lost their homes, and were forced into the streets. Are those people scumbag, druggy criminals?! Please don’t make broad assumptions and accuse the author of not taking things into account. These benefits have long been thought of as unnecessary crutches for people who don’t want to work, but it is now helping many former middle/working class families survive this horrible economic downturn. Turning your nose up at the less fortunate makes you ignorant and a part of the problem.

    I know people who abuse the system, and I completely agree that there needs to be better management of the entitlement programs like welfare, etc. However, I don’t understand how people can make such ridiculous assumptions only because they are born with privilege.