Shame and the Welfare State

Cory Doctorow:

“Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” a paper by Cornell’s Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions Suzanne Mettler features this remarkable chart showing that about half of American social program beneficiaries believe that they “have not used a government social program.”

Nona Willis Aronowitz:

Half of people getting federal student loans don’t think they’ve ever used a government social program. Forty percent of Medicare recipients have no idea their health insurance is funded by the state. And 25 percent of the people receiving that emblem of All That Is Bad About Big Government, welfare, don’t connect that paycheck to the “enemy.” Given the fact that one in six Americans use anti-poverty programs alone, there’s a hell of a lot of people who are deluded about how much the government helps them out.

Contra Doctorow and Aronowitz, I don’t think it’s obvious that all — or even most — of respondents who denied they used a government social program believe this to be the case. We need to admit the possibility that at least some of those people, rather than being deluded, are simply not telling the truth.

Liberals should find that possibility considerably more troubling. If welfare recipients only oppose the welfare state because they don’t realize how much it has helped them, then welfare’s proponents can do a lot of good for their cause through effective political communications and voter messaging. But what do you say to people who are already educated but unwilling to admit what they know? Before you can say anything, you must first figure out why they’re lying.

When people lie to pollsters, it’s usually because they’re ashamed of something. And if that’s the case for a more-than-insignificant number of respondents to this particular poll, that’s bad news for the left. It’s one thing to remove the stigma from social welfare by pointing out that many honest, hardworking people take advantage of it. But when it comes to people who both use welfare programs and stigmatize them, the problem is much deeper. Questions of dignity make voter education look easy.

I couldn’t tell you how many, if any, of the respondents are lying. It’s plausible — perhaps even likely — that the percentage isn’t statistically significant. But it seems unreasonable to assume that 100% of those respondents are misinformed. And if that 100% figure is more than, say, 20% off, then that raises a bunch of really tough policy questions.

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