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New book investigates the government-citizen disconnect

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Jeff Tyson

For decades, Americans' anger at government has been growing, despite the increase in benefits people receive from that same government. Suzanne Mettler explores this growing gulf between people’s perceptions of government and the actual role it plays in their lives in her latest book, “The Government-Citizen Disconnect.”

“It’s like Americans are at war with their own government. How can this be, that people have such low assessments of government and that they, at the same time, depend on it so much? That’s the big question of the book, the big paradox,” said Mettler, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Department of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In her analysis, Mettler drew on government data on 21 federal social policies, as well as a national survey she conducted through the Cornell Survey Research Institute. The telephone survey asked 1,400 Americans about their attitudes on government and policies, their political participation, as well as how these relate to their use and experience of the 21 federal social policies. She also conducted extensive follow-up interviews with some survey participants.

The 21 policies cover the array of the American welfare state, including the “submerged state” policies she wrote about in a previous book by that title, about benefits not generally recognized as being bestowed by the government. What Mettler found startling was how little difference even visible policies have on people’s attitudes. Within the country’s partisan polarization and social divisions, said Mettler, the one thing that unites Americans is that they’re very anti-government, and more so than they were several decades ago. And that has serious implications for our democracy.

“We have all of these major problems in society that really require government to do something on behalf of the common good,” said Mettler. “If we’re at war with our own government, then we’re undermining our own capacity. This dislike of government makes people willing to do rash things out of anger.”

Kentucky, for example, voted mostly Democratic in the 1970s, a time when residents of the state received 10 percent of their average income from social policies. By 2015, when that number rose to 23 percent, they were electing Tea Party and Freedom Caucus Republicans, like Andy Barr. “In some counties in his district, more than 40 percent of the average person’s income comes from federal social policies that he opposes. It’s just jaw-dropping,” said Mettler.

According to Mettler, part of the explanation is that voter participation is very low in counties relying heavily on social policies; such voters don’t have the resources or leisure time to participate and are not targeted for mobilization by public officials.

Another part of the problem is how policies are packaged. For example, Mettler found that beneficiaries of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) are very resentful of government, and the EITC money they receive fails to mitigate those feelings, because they don’t see it as coming from the government. “A lot of people who get the EITC have no tax liability so they’re getting this money as a benefit. It just happens to be run through the tax system, so they feel like they’ve earned it,” said Mettler.

Overall, those who participate most in politics are people who don’t recognize how government has benefitted them, while those who are aware of government’s help tend to refrain from political action. Mettler said this “participatory tilt” underlies the paradox of the government-citizen disconnect.

What’s needed are organizations that help people connect the dots about what government is doing for them, said Mettler. While policy designs matter, Mettler no longer believes that information by itself will correct the government-citizen disconnect. “People need face-to-face relationships with people who can help point out what government does for them,” she said.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.