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

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.

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