The Safety Net is Getting Wider and Tougher To Remove

There’s a very interesting article in today’s New York Times:

There is little poverty here in Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, where cheap housing for commuters is gradually replacing farmland. But Mr. Gulbranson and many other residents who describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year.

Dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in the county in 2009, a 69 percent increase from 2000 after adjusting for inflation. In Chisago, and across the nation, the government now provides almost $1 in benefits for every $4 in other income.

Older people get most of the benefits, primarily through Social Security and Medicare, but aid for the rest of the population has increased about as quickly through programs for the disabled, the unemployed, veterans and children.

The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.

The article gives a pretty good sense of the practical political difficulties of dislodging this or that aspect of the safety net. Whatever peoples’ political beliefs, it is very difficult to take away from them a piece of government largess to which they have grown accustomed. “Get your government hands of my Medicare” and all that.

That’s why most of the successful attempts to slice up the safety net have taken one of two forms: cuts to programs whose recipients are underrepresented and not particularly politically organized, and indirect future cutting in the form of tax cuts (that is, push through an unaffordable tax cut and then claim five or ten years later that budget concerns dictate we just have to cut the social safety net).

The Times piece also brought to mind one of my favorite recent political science studies, which I’d been looking for an excuse to blog about anyway. Most of the people quoted in the article seem to know that they are receiving government help (and they often feel conflicted about that fact), but this isn’t always the norm: Last year Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler found that many Americans who receive government assistance aren’t aware of that fact — 44.1% of Social Security recipients, for example, said that they don’t receive a government benefit.

Henry Farrell summed up the ramifications of this quite nicely:

Mettler’s basic argument is that because the US welfare state is ‘submerged’ and sliced up among a variety of different programs, many of which operate indirectly rather than directly, it is mostly invisible to US citizens. This has obvious political consequences – ‘government social programs’ are equated to ‘welfare’ and stigmatized. The fact that nearly half of Social Security recipients do not believe that they have benefited from a government social program, and that the same is true of some 40% of G.I. Bill beneficiaries and Medicare recipients is a rather extraordinary one.

Will this change as a result of the upward expansion of these sorts of programs? Dunno, but Americans don’t have a great track record of understanding how government works and how it connects the private to the public, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

UPDATE: Didn’t realize that Mettler wrote about this stuff in the pages of this very magazine over the summer — definitely check out her article.

CORRECTION: I originally stated incorrectly that the article was in yesterday’s Times, but it’s on the front page of today’s. Mea culpa.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.