February 13, 2011

Government Benefits Citizens in Unexpected Ways, Professor Says

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Most people do not know how they benefit from government services, according to a paper published by Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, which has garnered attention from major press outlets in recent weeks.

Mettler’s paper states that many citizens do not realize that certain government policies assist them because the policies are obscured through the tax code or through private actors and organizations.

Mettler published her paper, “Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” in September. Since it appeared on The Monkey Cage, a political blog, on Feb. 8, Mettler’s paper has also been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

In the paper, Mettler defines beneficial government policies not visible to ordinary citizens as the “submerged state.”

Some examples of “submerged” policies, according to Mettler, are the home mortgage interest deduction program, which gives people benefits for being homeowners, the non-taxable status of employer-provided health care benefits and the non-taxable status of employer-provided retirement benefits.

These policies are “very expensive” for United States citizens, Mettler said. The policies are expensive because “the largest benefits go to the most affluent Americans. The wealthiest receive the most,” she said.

Mettler studies social welfare policies since the mid-1970s and the ways in which they have influenced American attitudes about government.

She said President Barack Obama’s policy agenda for his first two years in office prioritized social welfare, including health care, student financial aid and tax expenditures. She added that many people with vested interests in the status quo act to protect it.

“Creating a health care policy for the uninsured is extremely difficult because the government has to take on the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies,” Mettler said. “They are all vested interests that have benefited from the current system … They are poised and ready to make sure that reform does not happen.”

As a result, Mettler said, politicians cut deals with special interests.

“This is disillusioning to people … It makes what’s going on not look like reform,” she said.

The reason that most social welfare programs have been “submerged” for the past 30 years is that bipartisan agreements for visible social welfare programs were not feasible, Mettler said.

Obama’s tax breaks — particularly the 2009 Stimulus Bill, which cut taxes for 95 percent of working Americans — were not acknowledged by most Americans, Mettler said.

The submerged policies can be made visible in three ways: increasing policy communication, changing policy design and improving policy delivery, Mettler said.

Original Author: Laura Shepard