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Posted at 12:37 PM ET, 02/11/2011

The submerged state in one graph

By Ezra Klein

"The submerged state" is Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler's term for the slew of government policies that most Americans don't know exist or don't realize are government policies. As part of her paper -- gated, sadly -- exploring how these invisible programs affect the politics of social policy, she designed a study asking people first whether they'd ever used a government program and then later whether they had ever taken advantage of 19 specific programs. The percentage of people who didn't think they used government programs and then admitted using government programs is shockingly large. This graph tells the tale. For each program, it shows the percentage of people who said they used it but had originally said they hadn't used any government programs:

invisiblestate.png

Of course, it's not as if these folks really don't know they're taking advantage of these programs. Try eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, or the tax break for employer-sponsored coverage, and you'll find that out real fast. But Americans tend to distinguish between benefits they feel they've earned -- Social Security, say -- and benefits they consider giveaways. It's not a very useful distinction, but it's a convenient, and thus a powerful, one. We have a vast welfare state for the middle and upper classes, but the politics of it are entirely different.

For instance: Among the more mind-blowing facts about the health-care system is that the tax break we give to employer-provided insurance dwarfs the cost of the entire Affordable Care Act -- and, if you want to take the concept a bit further, this means those of us who don't get insurance from our employers are being forced, even mandated, to pay for those of us who are. But this break is largely uncontroversial in American politics, while subsidies to help people who can't afford health insurance are extremely controversial.

By Ezra Klein  | February 11, 2011; 12:37 PM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs, Political Science  
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Comments

Benefit for me - good. Benefit for someone I don't know or don't like - bad.

It's really quite simple.

Posted by: fuse | February 11, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Too bad we don't have a gifted orator as president to make the case for an expanded social safety net, and for Keynesian economics overall. Instead he wants to cut money for poor people's heating in the midst of winter. Oh well, at least Wall Street is happy.

Posted by: stonedone | February 11, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

The fact that "an interstate highway" isn't on this list is a significant omission.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | February 11, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

bobo welfare

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | February 11, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

It isn't a mystery why people think this way.

People believe that taxes they pay should be relatively equal to the benefits they receive. When you receive a tax credit, you receive all the benefit...it's a wash. When there someone receives food stamps...taxes and benefits are not so easily contected

Social Security is popular because of the program's linkage of taxes and benefits....we need to make links in other programs more visible.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | February 11, 2011 2:45 PM | Report abuse

What is this graph measuring? Billions of dollars? trillions? Glenn Beck conspiracies on the subject?

Posted by: rpixley220 | February 11, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Please label the x-axis, or otherwise clarify for us dolts for whom this is not immediately obvious.

Posted by: 4620316 | February 11, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

This graph and the accompanying argument are pretty weak.

I think there's something questionable about including tax breaks, especially the mortgage interest deduction, as a "government program or policy" that someone is "taking advantage of." Essentially, claiming the mortgage interest deduction simply means that you are paying less in taxes than you otherwise would be. Which could be considered taking advantage of a benefit, but such a broad definition is virtually unconstrained.

The mortgage interest deduction at this point is just a feature of the US tax code, like the fact that the tax rate for a certain income bracket is 28% instead of 35%.

I'm pretty sure all income tax payers pay less in taxes due to Bush's 2001 tax cut and the recent extension. Are we all taking advantage of a government policy?

Or, it is theoretically possible that Congress could raise the income tax rate to 90%. Are we taking advantage of a government policy because they haven't?

Quite frankly, the approach taken in this graph troubles me because it lends support to one of the basic conservative critiques of liberals -- that we liberals think government is doing you a favor if they let you keep more of your own money.

Posted by: steveh4 | February 11, 2011 3:18 PM | Report abuse

@steveh4:
I believe the concept is these are simply the financial costs associated with these particular deductions and programs.
.
Given that we're trying to close a $1.5 trillion deficit, we need to know where the money is actually going to accurately decided what makes the most sense to cut.
.
The mortgage interest deduction is money the gov't doesn't receive because people deduct it from their taxes. If we reduce that 'benefit' the gov't gets more money coming in. (not to say that 2ndary effects don't also come in to play)
.
That's the point of this post. There are large 'policy' choices we have made as a country and these are the costs associated with them.

Posted by: rpixley220 | February 11, 2011 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Social Security is a forced savings plan. The money many people collect upon retirement is money they paid in therefore it is not a government program in the sense you are using the term here.

Posted by: Ross17 | February 11, 2011 3:31 PM | Report abuse

@rpixley220:

As I understand it, the point of the graph is to show how many people are benefiting from government programs without realizing it -- like "look at all the hypocrites calling for small government." That has certainly been the point of most blog posts I have read about it.

Still, though, even if the point is just to identify policy choices, I don't see the difference between the mortgage interest deduction and the rates not being higher than they are. Both are policy choices that result in less revenue to the government revenue.

Posted by: steveh4 | February 11, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse

@steph4 - the mortgage interest deduction essentially subsidizes your mortgage.

@ross17 - social security is NOT a forced savings plan. people retiring today will get far, far more from social security than they ever paid in.

Posted by: diveguy99 | February 11, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

"Social Security is a forced savings plan."

No, Social Security is just a transfer program. Young people pay the elderly, and hope that the government doesn't change the terms when they themselves are elderly.

Posted by: justin84 | February 11, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

"look at all the hypocrites calling for small government."

An advocate of small government can consistently take tax credits, deductions, or use tax advantaged savings accounts. He's just keeping his own money, consistent with his principles.

Posted by: justin84 | February 11, 2011 4:31 PM | Report abuse

@justin84 wrote:
"An advocate of small government can consistently take tax credits, deductions, or use tax advantaged savings accounts. He's just keeping his own money, consistent with his principles."
.
Actually no. If his principles are 'less' government, then taking advantage of government provided benefits is taking advantage 'big' government.
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Saying that what he uses is not big government is entirely the problem. Nobody like what *they* want cut. That is what makes him a hypocrite if he is calling for big government to be cut, but not his government benefits.

Posted by: rpixley220 | February 11, 2011 6:30 PM | Report abuse

"Actually no. If his principles are 'less' government, then taking advantage of government provided benefits is taking advantage 'big' government."

In case you didn't realize it, keeping your own money isn't a "government benefit".

But if it is, I'll advocate for a huge expansion of government - a 100% tax deduction on all income.

Posted by: justin84 | February 11, 2011 10:27 PM | Report abuse

OK, I can see the 529 and mortgage interest deduction being less visible examples, but ... 25% of people who used food stamps didn't know they had used a government program?

Posted by: dpurp | February 11, 2011 11:14 PM | Report abuse


I have a thirteen year old girl, and honest to god every day I wake up I am thankful that I have an incredible insurance policy that pays for my medical insurance. I found insurance from Wise Health Insurance website and it doesn’t pay 100% on everything, but when I receive the bill and find out just how much I would have had to pay had I not been insured I realize that there is no way in the world that I could have afforded kind of care without it.

Posted by: perelwll | February 12, 2011 1:51 AM | Report abuse


I have a thirteen year old girl, and honest to god every day I wake up I am thankful that I have an incredible insurance policy that pays for my medical insurance. I found insurance from Wise Health Insurance website and it doesn’t pay 100% on everything, but when I receive the bill and find out just how much I would have had to pay had I not been insured I realize that there is no way in the world that I could have afforded kind of care without it.

Posted by: perelwll | February 12, 2011 1:55 AM | Report abuse


After dealing with several lenders in Austin, I finally called 123 mortgage refi.I am a Realtor, and have several relationships in the mortgage business including major banks. I wish I would have been introduced to 123 sooner. They got solution to lower your interest

Posted by: betsyclark | February 12, 2011 7:26 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, you touch on a human brain defect that we just can't run away from. Welfare, even if directly paid for by the government, is not considered welfare if you feel you "deserve" it. Amazing that from your graph >40% of those receiving SS don't think they receive government assistance. That's how out of touch we are as a society with reality.

As a progressive, I welcome the Tea Party. They are forcing an extremely important debate. The $100 billion in cuts the House is proposing is a very useful exercise. First, it will force us to prioritize what we want from our government. Secondly, it will wake us up to how much government permeates everything we do. People want cuts until they hit home. Then it's different. Your graph clearly shows how ignorant we Americans are about our federal budget. It's time to wake up.

Posted by: gfoster56 | February 12, 2011 9:37 AM | Report abuse

As long as government keeps its hands off my Medicare, I'm good.

Posted by: Faedrus | February 12, 2011 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"In case you didn't realize it, keeping your own money isn't a "government benefit"."

In case you didn't realize it, we've been running deficits for > 30 years. It's not "keeping your own money." It's borrowing from your children. With no intention of paying them back. In fact, the GOP howled at the thought of NOT borrowing another $4 trillion from our kids.

Posted by: GreenDreams | February 12, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

"In case you didn't realize it, keeping your own money isn't a "government benefit"."

In case you didn't realize it, we've been running deficits for > 30 years. It's not "keeping your own money." It's borrowing from your children. With no intention of paying them back. In fact, the GOP howled at the thought of NOT borrowing another $4 trillion from our kids.

Posted by: GreenDreams | February 12, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"In case you didn't realize it, we've been running deficits for > 30 years. It's not "keeping your own money." It's borrowing from your children."

It is NOT the government's money. Nor is the money the government is planning on using to pay its debt obligations in the future. The government is pledging to steal from my children in order to pay its creditors.

Posted by: justin84 | February 13, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

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