A Cornell study has shown that a substantial portion of Americans who receive government benefits either don't believe or don't understand that they are government beneficiaries. We talked with Danny Hayes of American University to figure out what role the media, politicians, and citizens themselves might play in our nation-wide cognitive dissonance.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amid the talk of cutting government programs to fit under the debt ceiling, consider this surprising finding: In a nationwide survey Cornell Professor Suzanne Mettler found that many, perhaps a majority of people, enrolled in government programs do not understand that they are receiving government benefits. They include 60 percent of homeowners who qualify for a home mortgage interest deduction, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 39 percent of those on Medicare and 53 percent of people with government-backed student loans.
Danny Hayes is a professor of Government at American University who studies Americans’ changing political perceptions. And he has some thoughts on what appears to be the nation's cognitive dissonance.
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: Student loans is a really good example of what Suzanne Mettler and other scholars have referred to as the “submerged state,” right, the social welfare state that is largely hidden from public view.
When people pay off their student loans, they are not writing a check directly to the government and they're not getting communication, in many cases, directly from the government; they're getting it from a third party lender. This is one of the reasons that these benefits of government are often hidden from view, because in some ways we don’t actually interact directly with the government when we're engaging with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s apportion some blame here for this resistance to the notion that much of the public is being supported by some kind of government program. First of all, politicians.
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: Well, the Democrats are in a difficult position when it comes to government programs. On the one hand, they benefit politically from calling the public's attention to the fact that they've supported programs like Medicare and Social Security and things that many Americans like. But, on the other hand, in the abstract, Americans don't like the notion of, quote, unquote, “big government.”
And so, I think the Democratic Party doesn't want to put itself in the position of being cast as the tax and spend party, as Republicans often accused them of being.
But I also want to make clear that many of these programs that are at issue here, things like the mortgage interest deduction and tax credits, are of — also supported by Republicans. But Republicans have a different motivation for not wanting to draw attention to them. It's not that they’re afraid of being cast as the party of big government but that they don't really see it that way. They see it as giving Americans back their money, right, that is, money that they should never have to give to the government, in the first place.
And so, when Republicans talk about these things, they don't frame in terms of these are government benefits. They frame it in terms of these are protections that we are providing you from the government.
And so, in many ways, because the media serve as a conduit for these elite arguments, those arguments by politicians are what really kind of drive the way that Americans think about these programs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's when they discuss the programs at all. But, as you've observed, there are things that are baked into the business of journalism that seems to argue against discussing the details.
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: Media outlets tend to prefer stories about process, stories that focus on which politician’s winning, which politician’s losing. But the implications of the policies that are being debated, the cuts to spending, what will that mean for Americans, don't get much attention.
But it's also the case that policy stories don't get attention because they're harder to write at –- at all; journalists have to know more. And I'm not suggesting that journalists are lazier, that they don't care about policy, but especially from the perspective of people who work for daily news outlets, it’s — it's very difficult to write substantive, thoughtful, careful, nuanced policy stories within an eight-hour window and then write another story the next day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also, each time you have to explain what each of these policies is and what they do, just like they have to explain what cap and trade is each time. And that's boring, right?
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: Well, that's one of the things that works against the focus on policy, right? One of the things that's important here, too, is that some of these programs are supported by politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties. And so, when politicians don't fight over the substance of policies, the media often don't pay attention. Conflict is the - is what drives the narrative.
In moments where things like the G.I. Bill or Social Security are debated publicly, and so they get a lot of attention in the media, Americans are more likely to attach the benefits they receive to that to government policies, right, because they're being constantly reminded that these are things that the government is providing them.
But for many of these policies, they're not voted on, on a regular basis and so are not subject to political debate, and thus, the media don't give them a lot of coverage. Thus, citizens aren’t reminded about the programs. And so, they're just kind of baked into the way that we go about our daily lives and we don't think of them as government expenditures on our behalf.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It still astounds me that 27 percent of people who have subsidized housing or get welfare or get Medicaid claim that they have not used a government social program.
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: It, it really is stunning, but it's also — has to do with the associations that are raised in citizens’ minds when we think of people who receive government benefits, which stems in part from the debates in the 80s and 90s about welfare queens and people on the — on the dole and the arguments about welfare reform that were prominent during the Clinton administration.
Because of that, they don't want to associate themselves with that image that they have of what a government beneficiary is, even though that's not really an accurate characterization. They just don't think of themselves that way, and so that when they when they get asked survey questions like this, they say no, not me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that's great. So we're able to blame the politicians and the media, and also the news consumer. Does that suggest that any of this can change?
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: There's lots of research in political science that shows that when people are provided factual information about the consequences of public policies, they will often change their views. Media coverage often reflects the — the debate inside the Beltway, but that doesn't have to be the case, right? There’s nothing in the rule book of journalism that says you have to pay attention to what Democrats and Republicans are saying and not paying attention to anything else.
News organizations could free up some reporters to do more in-depth policy coverage. They could provide more information of the sort that we've talked about. And so, there's nothing deterministic and there’s nothing inevitable about the nature of coverage that we have today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
PROFESSOR DANNY HAYES: You're very welcome.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Danny Hayes is a former journalist and now a professor of Government at American University.
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