Here's Why Americans Hate Big Government — Even When They Benefit From It

Political scientist Suzanne Mettler explains “The Government-Citizen Disconnect” and why it's undermining our democracy.

Tea Party protest

For 40 years, Republicans have attacked Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as a disastrous failure. Suddenly, last month, President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors stood decades of history on its head, much as Trump himself did when he claimed, “Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it!” The War on Poverty was a tremendous success, Trump’s CEA said in a new report. Poverty is no longer problem. But dependency on government is: The remaining problem is “the decline of self-sufficiency”!

“Between 1961 and 2016, consumption-based poverty fell from 30 percent to 3 percent, amounting to a 90 percent decline,” the report claimed. “Based on historical standards of material wellbeing and the terms of engagement, our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.”  

But the so-called “consumption-based poverty” rate is absurd on its face, as seen in a chart accompanying that text, showing less poverty during the Great Recession than during the dot-com boom a decade earlier — a rare period of tight labor markets and rising wages, even for low-wage workers.

In short, as is often the case in Trumplandia, the narrative had nothing to do with reality. But the narrative is a powerful one, echoing Mitt Romney’s scorn for the 47 percent of Americans he labeled as “takers.”

Fortunately, a new book by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler seems custom-made for blowing this report to bits, as well as illuminating a complex history at odds with many common myths. “The Government-Citizen Disconnect” explains that government social spending has grown substantially over the years — more so in red states than blue — even as wages have largely stagnated ever since the 1970s. Never before have so many Americans gotten so much from their government in so many different ways, or appreciated it so little.

Examining 21 federal programs — Social Security, Medicaid, SNAP, the home mortgage interest deduction, etc. — Mettler finds that 96 percent of adults have received benefits from at least one of these policies, and that the average person has utilized five. What’s more, those who get the most tend to have the most negative anti-government attitudes. Rather than shedding light on what’s happening in America today, the CEA report can best be understood as a classic symptom of the long-standing disconnect that Mettler explores in her new book.

The relationship between government social benefits and the health of democracy has been a recurrent theme throughout Mettler’s work. On the most positive side, in “Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation,” she found that the GI Bill didn’t just help millions of veterans join the middle class, it inspired them to become active participants in civic organizations as well as politics,  producing a civic "golden age." On the other hand, in “The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy,” she explored how benefits distributed indirectly — through tax breaks or services from private companies (as with Obamacare subsidies) — obscure the role of government, as well as responsibility for who benefits most.

Throughout all her books, we can see how government policies have the potential to enrich people’s lives materially as well as encouraging their participation as citizens — or how they can fail to do so. In “The Government-Citizen Disconnect,” Mettler focuses on the central dilemma of how government programs over the past 40 years have come to produce civic and material results so profoundly at odds with one another.  

Salon spoke with her about her book, about the disconnect, and about what it means for America as a functioning democracy. 

I want to begin by asking about the subject of your book — the government-citizen disconnect, and two things you've said about it. You write that "while trust in government has eroded and suspicion and hostility have grown, people are more reliant on government than ever." Secondly, you've written, "What is at stake here is not only the future of American social provision but, more importantly, the well-being of democratic governance," which goes to its significance.  

I was actually really surprised by it too. I have been, for many years, studying changes in the rates of Americans who use 21 different federal social policies. When I began this research a long time ago, I thought that some of these policies were atrophying in coverage. But when I got back to the project, I found that, really, policies across the board have increased their coverage, at different rates. We’re in a long period now, since the 1980s, of hostility toward government social programs on the part of conservatives, and that has continued. But they only succeeded in getting one major policy decimated, and of course that was AFDC — Aid to Families with Dependent Children — in 1996.

Every other policy has remained intact, and coverage has grown. When you look at it across time, what you find is that when you add up all these policies — if you’re looking at just the direct, visible policies, in 1969 they made up 7 percent of the average American’s income, and now it’s 17 percent.  Then I looked further and included policies in what I previously called the "submerged state," policies in the tax code that serve the same purposes as the other policies — like housing, health care, and so on — but we often don't think of them as social policies, because of their design. If you add those in, the average American adult uses about 4.5 policies in their lifetime. So those policies are very common, and people are using lots of different social policies, at different times for different reasons. Yet on all sorts of indicators, people's attitudes about government and become more negative over the past several decades.

You look back to the middle of the 20th century, and Americans had very high levels of trust in government. On measures that we call political advocacy, statements like "government officials don't care about people like me," or "I have no say what government does," most Americans would disagree with those negative statements back then, whereas now the vast majority agree with those. It's been a change over time, so that started back in the Vietnam era, with Watergate, etc., but then it's really increased over time. What surprising is if you look back at that time, in the middle of the 20th century, we actually asked a lot more of citizens then. Tax rates were higher then, and we had conscription during the Vietnam War, with men having to serve in the military. Now, relatively speaking, we don’t ask vmuch of citizens, we give them more in terms of social benefits, and yet people have these very poor attitudes. So that's the paradox that I'm trying to grapple with in the book. That's the puzzle.

So that's the nature of the disconnect. What about its significance?

First of all, it means that these policies are constantly under attack. When you look at who participates in politics, people who are not very well aware of the policies they use are most likely to participate. So higher income people participate more, and most of their benefits come through the tax code. People aren't thinking much about government doing much for them.

The Trump administration has made several efforts, most recently through the new CEA report and recommendations, to add work requirements to some of the most frequently used social policies — SNAP (previously called “food stamps”) and Medicaid -- and to refer to these programs as “welfare.”  We used to reserve that term solely for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a policy that was terminated in 1996, and replaced by the more restrictive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which is now used by less than 1 percent of Americans annually. But now conservatives are trying to reignite and widen the war on welfare with these efforts to stigmatize more policies, treating them as if they are for the “undeserving,” and undermining their legitimacy.  

As a political strategy, it makes sense, in that those who rely on means-tested policies are less likely to participate in politics than others, so they lack political clout. Meanwhile a good share of Americans, over 40 percent, hold very unfavorable views of welfare.

But in fact, the average American uses a means-tested policy at some point in his or her life. We rely on the safety net when unemployment soars, as it did in the Great Recession; furthermore, changes in the economy and workplace since the mid-20th century have made these programs all the more important, given slow wage growth, increased job insecurity and fewer jobs that offer benefits.

Then there are the larger concerns that I see about Americans lacking confidence in government. This is something I’ve worried about for a long time, yet it seemed kind of like an academic concern not that long ago. Now it's more of a real concern. We’re been in a long period where our major political discourse is anti-government discourse, and people have bought into that. What this country is founded on is the principle of self-government, that we can govern ourselves, and yet what people are endorsing, really, is thinking of our own government as the enemy. That is in the long-term fundamentally detrimental to our capacity as a society to engage in collective action, to work together across differences and to make headway on all the challenges that are facing us.

One of the things you write about is the theory of policy feedback. That's something people outside the field may not be familiar with, but it’s important for focusing attention on the experiential foundations of policymaking and reality-based self-governance. Can you explain what that is?

Policy feedback is a concept that's been around now for a few decades among political scientists. It means that policies, once established, can have the effect of reshaping politics. They may affect who participates in politics, or the kinds of political demands people make. For example, Social Security, as Andrea Campbell at MIT has shown, has over time fostered more political activity among senior citizens who wanted to protect the benefits, and it's been quite protected over time, because of that dynamic.

In this book, I was looking more broadly at how the use of policies affect people's attitudes about government, generally speaking. I did not find compelling evidence that there's much impact. I found that people who use visible means-tested policies, there are some policy feedback effects for their attitudes about government. They're more likely to think "government has helped me in times of need," or "government has provided opportunities for me to improve my standard of living," that kind of thing.

But overall, I thought that the policies that are hidden in the tax code would not have much impact, and they don’t. I was surprised that the visible policies did not have more of an impact on people's attitudes about government. I thought they would, across the board, have more positive effects than they do, and for the most part they have not had much impact.  So I don't think people connect the dots very much. I don't think they think, "You know, if I look across my lifetime, government was there for me in various instances, and therefore I think government cares about people like me." Not many people make that connection.

You point out that in both 2012, when Romney made his infamous "47 percent" remark, and in 2016, the Republicans won more states that are more dependent on government. Why is significant and not just some odd quirk?

It's really interesting, Romney had made that comments suggesting that people who use government benefits are more likely to support the Democrats. When I look at the Electoral College and the average usage of social benefits by state there's not really a relationship. There are plenty of solidly red states that were in Romney’s column and then in Trump’s column that rely heavily on social benefits. So then it's like the plot thickens: Here you have people in areas that rely a lot on social benefits, and yet they are electing people who are often promising to scale back those benefits. We've seen a lot of that in recent years. And so that's a problem piece. What's going on? What can explain this?

I think various different things are at play. In the analyses that I did, one factor that was consistently significant, and shaped people's attitudes about government in a negative direction, was their views about welfare. When people are asked about welfare, about 45 percent of Americans will say they have unfavorable views of it,. It turns out that that is a very significant determinant of their broader views about government.

Because if people look at that one policy — whatever they mean by that — and they extrapolate, they’re thinking that government has these policies that I don't think are fair or right, and that's basically what government is: It gives special advantages to people who don't work to pay their own way, it gets them special benefits and doesn't take care of people like me who work hard, etc. I think conservatives have managed to capitalize on that kind of approach and that has served them well. For example, I look at the state of Kentucky.

Yes I wanted to ask about the history there, over time. I thought it was fascinating.

To me, this is just a book full of puzzles and paradoxes, and Kentucky is one of them. I felt like if I could understand what's happening in Kentucky, I could understand American politics. You go back to as recently as the 1980s, and Kentucky was sending moderate Democrats to Congress, and they included some progressives who were responsible for some really important social and educational social policies. By the 1990s, they begin to send moderate Republicans to Congress. And then, from the mid-'90s to the present, their delegation becomes more and more conservative, so that they're sending Tea Party folks and Freedom Caucus folks to Congress. But at the same time — I have a graph [below] in the book that shows this — the proportion of the average Kentuckian's income that comes from the federal government increases dramatically, from 10 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2015.

I drill down to the congressional district level. For example, in Kentucky's 6th District, the congressman's name is Andy Barr, and he's one of the proponents of having work requirements and time limits for food stamps. In some counties in his district, 52 percent of the average person's income comes from federal social transfers. This is just mind-boggling.

So I tried to learn what I can about this. That philosophy about welfare is probably a factor that comes into play there. I looked at the determinants of those negative attitudes about welfare. There's long been attention to race, and I do find that race is significant, that whites are more likely than people of color to be anti-welfare. But the other factor that is highly significant is income growth. I divided up the respondents into all these subgroups, and each of the middle-income groups had a very negative feeling toward welfare, much more, more so than both low-income people and high-income people.

You have people who we been in this long era of rising economic inequality, where for middle-income people and low-income people their wages have been pretty stagnant, or in some occupations deteriorating over time. So I think people have felt like they're not getting ahead, their kids are not having greater opportunities, and the Republican Party in Kentucky has effectively made the case of connecting the dots for them in a way that says the problem is Democrats and their environmental policies which have been detrimental to the coal industry and so on. Now, if you dig down, there's not good evidence for that, but they have managed to command the narrative and gives people an explanation. And while Americans generally like the policies they use, when it comes to these more general principles, they are still very anti-government. I'm sure there's other things that play into it, but those are some of the main things that stood out to me.

You look at two specific policy areas in more detail, and I’d like to ask you about them. First, your comparison of welfare and the earned-income tax credit.

This is something else I found really boggling. So the earned-income tax credit, for sociologists or economists who write about it, it's a big success. It's our largest anti-poverty program now, that has a big impact in raising a lot of people's household incomes above the poverty level. From that point of view, it's quite successful. Respondents like it very much; they feel it’s a policy that treats them with dignity and respect. They get to go to the offices of H&R Block to fill out their tax forms and get the returns; they like it much better than when they went to these dark, dingy welfare offices where they were treated in a way that was very disrespectful.

But I wanted to know: What is the political impact of that? Does that make people feel better about government? I thought maybe it would, and to the contrary, I found that it does not have an impact, and in fact, people who use EITC have very negative attitudes about government, and those attitudes remain intact and unaffected by EITC. What that says to me is that these people are the working poor, whose lives have been very difficult in recent decades. They epitomize what I've been saying about people who are middle-income and yet they’re seeing less opportunity, they’re not getting ahead, and I think they’re borne much of the brunt of that.

There's also, for people in that group, a sense of this fiscal cliff: They may have qualified for some other social benefits for a time, and then, just when they start making more income, suddenly they no longer qualify for those things, such as food stamps, for example. So then they're more resentful. We did a bunch of open-ended, in-depth interviews with people to try to explore what they were thinking about these policies. That's what many people told us, that they felt that government was unfair because people would make more income and then they wouldn’t qualify for things.

That's what I saw happening with the earned income tax credit. Now those individuals – when we compared them to AFDC and TANF beneficiaries, those [latter] folks were more likely to have more positive attitudes about government, but the EITC folks were more likely to vote, more likely to participate in politics than the AFDC/TANF beneficiaries. So it illustrates that wider pattern I was finding. It's interesting because most policies in the tax code are for high-income people. They’re submerged, people use them but they don't think government has done anything for them. I wondered, would that be different for these low-income people who are EITC beneficiaries? But it's the same basic pattern. I think a general pattern of these policies and tax codes is that people view it not as government giving them a benefit, but rather them getting to keep more of their own money, simply because of the way it’s distributed, designed and delivered.

Another issue area you focused on was higher education, and the different forms of support involved. What did your comparison of those different forms of support show?

There again, policies with the most visible design have an impact. So people who used the G.I. Bill, and Pell Grants are — controlling for other factors — more likely to feel that government has provided opportunities them to improve their standard of living. I was really struck by these findings. It's consistent with early research I’ve done with other data sets. I wrote a book about the World War II G.I. Bill, and found it really had a very positive impact in different ways.

In each of these instances, what you're seeing is that when policies are delivered in a way that government’s role is clear, it has a different impact than when it’s channeled through the tax code, as is the case with say the 529 benefits or the American Opportunity Tax Credit or student loans, which is a hybrid sort of policy — it's visible in some ways, but less so in others, and does not have that much of an impact on people's feelings that government cares about them or has provided opportunities.

What would be your broadest, major takeaway from all this?

The major takeaway is that people's views about welfare was the one thing that was consistent in every single model I ran, every attitude that we looked at. People's views about welfare were highly significant. Some of those other things about people's social identities and partisan affiliations, they would pop up in one model or another, but not with the same clear pattern that there was about views about welfare.

Returning to something touched on before, about the different levels of participation — both for voting and otherwise. You showed that America's voting gap is quite large. No other country is really similar, but it's invisible, virtually, in terms of the political discourse. It’s not a subject that gets a lot of air time, ink or electrons. These people don't vote, and the issues that matter for them just sort of disappear from the conversation. What did you find? And why does it matter?

I'm not really breaking new ground here, there's a big scholarship that shows that people who are lower-income and have less education are less likely to vote. I'm just adding to that: Yes, these are people who use these particular policies and their voices are not heard. We have known for a while, from scholars that study economic inequality, that politicians respond particularly to high income people. There's really great work on this by Martin Gilens at UCLA, for example, and this underscores that same finding. The policies that benefit higher-income people tend to be protected, and policies that benefit lower-income people tend to be under attack more often.

I like to end my interviews by asking what's most important question I didn't ask. What would that be for you? And what’s the answer?

Maybe where this leaves us is: Where do we go from here? What can be done? I've been talking for a while in my work about how we ought to create policies where government's role is more visible, and we ought to deliver policies in a way where we're trying to make that evident to people. For those things to happen, I think you have to have the political will, and right now that's not the case. What I actually think is more significant now is organizing on the ground, interacting with people and helping to connect the dots for them.

If you go back to the middle of the 20th century, when many more Americans belonged to labor unions than today, labor unions helped to make it more evident to people what difference government makes to them, and what policies were helpful. The AARP does that and continues to do that for retired people, on the role of Medicare and Social Security in their lives. But we don't have many other organizations that do that. For these problems we have been talking about, and lots of others that are confronting American democracy these days, it's necessary for people to become active at the grassroots level in organizations, and for those organizations to make these connections with people.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.