Citizens Using State Programs Unaware that they Use State Programs

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the things I’m fond of doing on this blog is chronicling just how much the general public doesn’t know about statecraft and speculating how that public ignorance might debilitate the quality of our governance. Today, I ran across a study from Cornell’s Suzanne Mettler detailing a curious phenomenon–many (and in some cases, most) of the beneficiaries of government programs are completely unaware that they themselves benefit from government programs.

Let’s take a look at just how pernicious this problem is:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4
Source: Suzanne Mettler, “Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenge of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” Perspectives on Politics (September 2010): 809.

A full 53% of students using student loans were unaware that these loans were state-financed when this data was taken–more than half. My peers are not doing so hot. What I find perhaps most startling is that even with the programs that are most obviously state-run, like food stamps, public housing, welfare, medicaid, and so on, a sizable 25-30% still are unaware that they’re using a state program. Seniors in particular are quite bad about this–44% of seniors using social security don’t know it’s a government program and 40% don’t know Medicare is. A solid 40% of veterans receiving veterans’ benefits don’t even know that the state pays for their veterans benefits. It’s hard to point out which statistic is the most worrying. Quite a few of these are a bit spellbinding.

How is this likely to influence our politics? I’d say that in this case, the answer is fairly straightforward–if people do not know that they themselves benefit from government programs, they are likely to believe that government programs are one of two things:

  1. State programs are generally ineffective–most people do not benefit from them, so we might as well not have them.
  2. State programs are for other people–if these individuals do not see themselves as beneficiaries, they may see themselves as exclusively contributors, and therefore consider themselves unwilling victims of state redistribution.

The reality of course is that these individuals are not merely contributors, they are beneficiaries, and if the state were to get rid of these programs, they would personally be worse off. As a result, individuals who are unaware that they benefit from state programs are likely to vote against the very programs they themselves unwittingly benefit from. This affects a surprisingly large group of people.

For instance, Medicare had 47.5 million beneficiaries when the study was taken. According to this study, approximately 40% don’t know that Medicare is a government program. That’s 19 million people. There are currently about 35 million people with outstanding student loans under the age of 60, so that’s an additional 10 million unaware people, plus 53% of however many people once had student loans but have paid them off. It’s difficult to reach a total, because many people are benefiting from multiple government programs simultaneously, but that’s at least 29 million deeply ignorant individuals, or around 10% of the population, and 10 million of those people at minimum have attended college. This is a problem that transcends education.

29 million is a very low estimate (because not all beneficiaries of state policy benefit either from social security or from student loans, and because people who no longer have outstanding student loan debt are not included in the figures). Yet, if we were to assume that all of these people who claim never to have benefited from government programs voted for Mitt Romney, we would have enough people to account for roughly half of Romney’s vote total. While it’s unrealistic to assume that every single person who claims not to have benefited from state programs votes for republicans, it’s certainly reasonable to assume that this group is disproportionately right-leaning. It is very plausible that these people account for a large chunk of republican votes and that these votes may be collectively responsible for a significant number of republican congressional seats, particularly in districts in which elections are close.

It’s unrealistic to lay the blame for this on the ignorant individuals themselves–many of them have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that prevent them from following politics the way that professionals like me (and readers like you) do. Oftentimes, people who are personally deeply interested in politics and the social sciences begrudge others their apathy or their lack of learning. We must remember that what is interesting to us is not interesting to everyone, and what we need to know in order to do our jobs is often very different from what other people need to know.

It is ultimately the fault of the political system that these inevitably ignorant individuals have the ability to collectively sway governance in a way that self-harms. And make no mistake about it–the unknowing beneficiaries of state programs who vote against these programs are self-harming. They are not malevolently out to get themselves, they are acting from a poor knowledge base. Whenever a system or a program requires that everyone possess a high level of knowledge and experience of a specific skill area, that system or program necessarily ignores the fact that it is impossible for everyone to duplicate the same academic background without tremendous inefficiency.

There’s a reason we have a division of labor, that some of us are doctors, some of us are air conditioning repairmen, some of us do politics, and so on. We each have different interests, different abilities, different ways of contributing to society. When we are all required to contribute in the same way irrespective of our interests and abilities, the result is disastrous. Democracy flagrantly ignores the division of labor, encouraging the ignorant to act on their ignorance. Insofar as it does that, it is it itself the ultimate cause of the malaise that follows.