Invisible Policies

One of the themes of my new book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, is that Americans are largely unaware of many public policies, even if they benefit from them themselves.  This was indicated, for instance, by a table from my earlier work that was discussed on the Monkey Cage last winter and reproduced on other blogs; in an article that appeared in this magazine this past summer; and in the introduction to my book that appeared on Salon last weekend. In reading the comments, I’ve noticed that some readers interpret me to be implying that people are stupid or ignorant. That is not my argument and the data do not support that conclusion.

Rather, I am arguing that Americans’ awareness of social welfare policies is influenced primarily by the design and delivery of such policies. I draw on Paul Pierson’s conceptual approach to policy feedback, specifically his suggestion that policies must be visible and traceable to government if they are to have an impact on citizens’ subsequent political behavior. Policies vary in this regard. Those that require people to interact frequently or intensively with government in order to establish and maintain their eligibility are readily perceived as “government social programs;” this includes means-tested policies such as Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families as well the non-means-tested disability insurance component of Social Security. Conversely, many of our mostly costly forms of social provision today camouflage government’s role as a provider of social benefits. They do this by channeling benefits through the tax code, as does the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, for example, and/or through subsidies to private organizations, such as employer-provided health insurance benefits, for which recipients are not required to pay taxes. These latter, indirect policies are the ones I call the “submerged state.” It is easy for citizens to miss government’s role in these policies, and to assume that only the market at is at work.

The difference between the direct and indirect social welfare policies, however, is illusory. From an accounting perspective, they are the same thing: both impose costs on federal spending and add to federal deficits. In fact, all “social tax expenditures,” meaning special tax breaks for families and households, add up to 7.4 percent of GDP—-considerably more than our most expensive direct social program, Social Security, which hovers around 5 percent of GDP, or Medicare and Medicaid combined, which amount to about 5 percent. In most cases, tax breaks distribute resources by permitting people to pay less in taxes, rather than by paying out dollars or providing services. That aspect of their design makes it easy to construe them as tax cuts rather than as social provision.  But this, too, is a false distinction. “Social tax expenditures” assist people with particular circumstances, granting them resources to which others are not entitled. This is in stark contrast to across-the-board tax cuts to all Americans. For example, several tax breaks are bestowed on homeowners but not on renters, even at the same income level. Just as in the case of direct social benefits, policymakers at some point made a decision that people who behave in a particular way deserve special treatment from government; they opted to deliver it via the tax code rather than sending out checks.

In short, the fact that citizens often fail to recognize these policies as government social provision is attributable not to some fault of citizens, but rather to the characteristics of the policies themselves. The submerged state has all sorts of implications for democratic citizenship.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Suzanne Mettler

Suzanne Mettler is Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University. Her latest book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, will be published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.