Why Don’t the People Who Benefit Most from Government Help Seem to Appreciate It?

BY 2008, my father-in-law was in bad shape. His dementia was so advanced that my mother-in-law sorely needed some respite. We found a day care program and suggested she inquire whether government subsidies were available to help cover the cost. A lifelong Democrat, she initially dismissed the suggestion out of hand. “It’s not worth it. The government doesn’t care about people like us, who have worked all their lives. They only care about the poor.”

She asked, though, and—quickly and efficiently—Medicare covered the costs.

Since then I’ve been on a quiet rampage. When she received a new energy-efficient refrigerator that, to her delight, cost her only $100, I pointed out that it was compliments of the Obama stimulus program.223 When fire fighters came to her house to check her smoke alarms and make sure the house was safe, I gently pointed out that that, too, was a government benefit. When she marveled one day that she had a full meal at the senior center for only $3, again I mentioned that the bounty she’s enjoying comes from her government.

This should not be a one-woman campaign.

In Suzanne Mettler’s must-read book The Submerged State, she points out that most Americans don’t know about the subsidies and benefits they receive from their government. In 2008, a survey asked Americans whether they had “ever used a government social program, or not.” Of those surveyed, 56.5% said they never had. In fact, 91.6% had.224

For the working class, the most valuable and least discussed social program is the system of disability payments to those deemed unable to work (formally known as Social Security Disability Insurance). Chana Joffe-Walt’s reporting, which has received shockingly little attention, documented that the federal government spends more on cash payments for disability than on food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (aka “welfare”) combined.225 Nearly 40% of men aged 21–64 were on disability in the rural California community Sherman studied.226

Joffe-Walt documents the steep increase in the costs of the disability program and its link to the disappearance of blue-collar jobs. She spoke with a doctor who, when deciding whether to certify disability, always asks patients what grade they finished in school, which “is not really a medical question. But Dr. Timberlake believes he needs this information in disability cases because people who have only a high school education aren’t going to be able to get a sit-down job.”227 Dr. Timberlake was hesitant to deny disability to someone who was unlikely to be able to find work.

She also spoke with a man in Washington, whose “dad had a heart attack and went back to work in the mill. If there’d been a mill for [the son] to go back to work in, he says, he’d have done that too.” But the mill had closed, so the son went on disability. In his 50s, he went to lots of meetings about retraining programs, but finally a staff member pulled him aside and advised: “There’s nobody gonna hire you. . . . Just suck all the benefits you can out of the system until everything is gone, and then you’re on your own.” The system lacks incentives for retraining and disincentives for relocation. It has become “a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills,” Joffe-Walt concluded, that consigns them to permanent poverty. It pays $13,000 a year. “Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work.”228

Yes, I get the irony: the white working class is outraged about welfare but benefiting from a different welfare program themselves. If we actually had a robust industrial policy and effective job retraining, we’d be far better off. But we also need something else: a new public understanding of government programs and who benefits from them.

One reason working-class whites associate the government only with subsidies for the poor is that many subsidies for the middle class are submerged—visible only to policy specialists (I learned this in grad school at MIT). These include the mortgage interest deduction, student loans, and tax exemptions for retirement and health benefits. In 2007, the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction cost taxpayers four times as much as Section 8 public housing subsidies,229 but knowing that is the province of specialists.

Many Americans don’t even know that Medicare is a federal program. A man stood up at a 2009 town hall held by Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC) and told him to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Inglis politely explained, “Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government.’” Inglis told the Huffington Post, “But he wasn’t having any of it.”230 Similarly, when Trump took office, some celebrated the repeal of “Obamacare,” which they saw as a government welfare program, not realizing it was the same as the “Affordable Care Act.”231

Whose fault is that?

Conservatives have engaged in a sustained, decades-long effort to popularize negative attitudes toward government. They have been tragically successful. Only 19% of Americans say they can trust government always or most of the time, which is among the lowest levels in the past half century. Only 20% say government programs are well run. But when asked about programs one by one, Americans see a major role for government not only in keeping the country safe from terrorism (94%) and responding to natural disasters (88%) but also in ensuring safe food and medicine (87%), protecting the environment (75%), strengthening the economy (74%), and setting workplace standards (66%).232

How do those attitudes fit together? When Arlie Hochschild traveled to Louisiana to find out why Tea Party members were so hostile to government in one of the most polluted regions in the world, she found—no surprise—that hostility to government was fueled by programs for the poor. Nationwide, only 36% of Republicans say government should have a major role in addressing poverty.233

Publicizing to working-class Americans how they themselves benefit from government programs needs to be a major priority. Not just for liberals: my sense is that many moderate conservatives now feel that hostility to government has gone too far. We need a bipartisan campaign to educate the American public about the positive roles that government plays in their lives. There are two major themes that will appeal to the white working class (and many others): keeping them safe and ensuring economic stability.

Both white and black working-class men see protecting their families as a key part of keeping their world in moral order (see Table 1).234 Governments help them do this. Local and state governments supply police and firefighters, who protect their homes and families. The federal government protects citizens through the military and FBI. State and federal environmental agencies protect citizens from toxins and pollution. The Food and Drug Administration ensures food safety, which is no mean feat, and protects us from unsafe drugs.235 The Federal Trade Commission protects against identity theft and against those scammers who swindle grandmas. All this we take for granted; it makes news only when an agency messes up.

Federal and state governments also ensure economic stability for working-class families. Thanks to Social Security,236 Medicare,237 and (through Obamacare) prescription drug benefits,238 the elderly have the lowest poverty rate of any age group. (Children have the highest poverty rate.239)

Another fruitful theme is the way the federal government has helped make the United States uniquely prosperous and innovative. Nearly two-thirds of Americans own their homes thanks to the FHA, Fannie Mae, and other entities that are run, or were founded and nurtured, by the federal government.240 Our scientists make breakthroughs important for people throughout the world, due to support from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. The Agricultural Research Service developed strains of super-grains that have helped the poor the world over escape starvation, and the Cooperative Extension Service gives America’s extraordinarily productive farmers the know-how they need to produce abundant food.

Two-thirds of Americans say government has a negative effect on the ways things are going in this country. But 56% believe the same thing about large corporations.241 This suggests a potentially useful theme for people interested in restoring faith in government. Americans need government to protect them against overweening corporate power. Without the federal government, bankers would refuse affordable loans to working-class kids for college, and to vets who want to get an education or buy homes. Without government supervision, insurance companies refused to give health insurance to hardworking Americans with preexisting conditions. And banks jacked up secret fees until the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau required the banks to pay them back.242

The appetite for a fairer playing field is out there. Arlie Hochschild found that Louisiana Tea Party members were also outraged by what scholars call “regulatory capture”—when regulators become more favorable to the industries they’re supposed to be overseeing than the ordinary people they’re supposed to be protecting. Said a Tea Partier, “The health unit came down on my nephew for not keeping his hogs away from the bad water, but they didn’t do nothing about the bad water.” Said another, “The state always seems to come down on the little guy” while letting large corporations off the hook. Notes Hochschild, “It was becoming easier to understand why energy refugees were so furious at the state government.”243 (By energy refugees, she means Louisianans driven out of their homes due to pollution or other externalized costs of local energy industries.)

Yes, government regulation can be a pain. If you run a small business, which many working-class people do, regulations can pose a bewildering series of hoops you have to jump through, administered by those professionals the working class often resents. And corporations will always loudly blame government regulation for an unpopular product (energy-efficient lightbulbs) or to deflect attention from corporate failures. Americans are going to hear, and experience first-hand, ways in which government regulation is vexing. But this makes it all the more important to have a counter-narrative. Because if we have none, well, then there’s no counter-narrative. People will only see the downside of regulation and not the upside.

There’s another counter-narrative to the “common knowledge” that the government screws up everything. The military, a highly respected institution among working-class whites, does a good job of providing many services that government supposedly cannot provide well, notably child care.244 (Alas, the waiting time fiascos at the VA are not helping the agency’s reputation.)

It will take a sustained effort to change Americans’ attitude toward government—but then it took a long time to get where we are today.245 Millions of dollars have been spent teaching Americans to distrust their government. It’s time for some spending to point out all the ways government at every level, and particularly the federal government, helps the have-a-littles, not just the have-nots. Changing working-class attitudes will require a mind shift for progressives whose instinct has been to highlight the benefits of government help for the poor. Again, that strategy only hurts the poor—and everyone else—in the long run.

A little information goes a long way. Mettler describes a 2007 study in which Americans were given information about which groups benefited from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Afterwards, 68% of respondents said that the program should be expanded.246 (It’s important to remember that the EITC helps families who are working. I doubt the same result would have been reached if people were asked about TANF and food stamps.)

Mettler argues against tax expenditures—subsidies delivered through the tax code—and for direct government provisioning. She also suggests redesigning government procedures that make government subsides more salient. I think it was great that the Obama administration shifted student loans away from banks to the government,247 and that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been active in advocating on students’ behalf.248 But tax expenditures and privatization are here to stay, alas, because both make it easier to assemble a legislative coalition.249

A while back, I floated the idea of an internet campaign modeled on the highly influential “It Gets Better” Project, in which people post short videos about their own lives designed to reassure gay youth that they have a future worth living for. I proposed to have Americans make short videos of their daily lives, thanking the government for some service or benefit that makes those lives possible—highways, the internet, sewer systems, schools, etc., and ending with the phrase, “Thank you, Uncle Sam!” No funding’s come through yet, but I still think this has potential.250

The final thing we need to do is reinstitute civics. When I was growing up, everyone took a civics course. It gave a distinctly celebratory view of American institutions: the Constitution and separation of powers, the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, the presumption of innocence, and trial by jury. By the time I got to college, the new social history shifted to social movements and oppressed groups. That shaped the way American school children are taught history. Celebrating our democracy went out of fashion.

When Trump railed that he was going to put Hillary in jail, that didn’t sound un-American to many voters. Having a president summarily jail a defeated opponent violates separation of powers, trial by jury, and the presumption of innocence. The fact that more voters were not repulsed by Trump’s statements is linked, I believe, to the demise of civics. It’s time to bring back the teaching of American values. We can do so without descending into jingoism or nationalism.

I have devoted my life to gender and race issues; I’m not suggesting that we abandon the social history curriculum completely. But we need to make sure all Americans know not only the ways our system has failed but also the ways it’s succeeded—if progressives want to keep the social gains we’ve made in the past 50 years.

Part of the reason I’m convinced that we can improve Americans’ views of government is because patriotism is so important to the white working class. J. D. Vance notes that his grandmother “always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else we knew.”251 Patriotism is out of fashion in the PME, especially among liberals, but remains robust in working-class circles. Being American is one of the only high-status categories they belong to.252 We all stress the high-status social categories we belong to. I remember discussing this with a feminist friend, who smiled as she recalled showing up at an important job interview “dripping with pearls.”253 She may have been a less plausible candidate as a woman, but she made sure her prospective employers knew she was connected to the kind of people who bought pearls. Lots of them.

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