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More People Than Ever Depend on the Federal Government for Help. So Why Is Public Trust at an All-Time Low?

In her new book, political scientist Suzanne Mettler asks: How can the U.S. government provide so much, yet still be the object of such derision?
Two people walk inside a Medicare Services office in New York City.

Two people walk inside a Medicare Services office in New York City.

Every year, the United States government provides Medicare benefits to over 55 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries, and Medicaid or Children's Health Insurance Program benefits to over 73 million low-income and disabled beneficiaries. It offers an economic boost to almost 26 million low-income working American families (via the Earned Income Tax Credit), helps over 32 million American families pay their mortgages (via the mortgage interest tax deduction), and subsidizes health insurance for the approximately 155 million Americans who get health insurance through their employers. Despite all this, trust in the U.S. government has never been lower.

This paradox is at the center of The Government-Citizen Disconnect, the fascinating new book by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler. Mettler's goal in writing the book was to explore one simple question: "How can government do so much, yet be so despised?"

"The distrust is part of a long-term trend. After 9/11, there was a brief period where people had more positive attitudes about government, but then the levels went back to where they'd been," Mettler tells Pacific Standard. "And there are reasonable reasons for the distrust—it's harder to get congress to act because of polarization, things like that—the puzzle is how can it be that that is happening at the same time as people are relying so much on the government for income and education and health care and support for housing."

In 2015, only 20 percent of Americans surveyed in a tracking poll said they could "trust the government in Washington to do what is right" always or most of the time, down from 60 percent in the early 1970s. This trend is particularly puzzling in light of the fact that Americans today are more reliant on a wide array of federal government policies and programs than ever before (with the exception coming during the years of the Great Recession). Between 1969 and 2014, the percentage of the average American's income coming from federal transfer programs like Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the EITC increased from 7 percent to 17 percent. That percent balloons if you widen the definition of government assistance to include programs administered through the tax code and not typically identified as "welfare" programs—such as the mortgage interest deduction, the tax break for employer-subsidized health insurance, or federal financial aid: Under such pretense, 96 percent of American adults have benefited from at least one major government program.

Americans' increasing hostility has been bolstered by a resurgent Republican Party, one that's platform relies heavily on eliminating many of these federal programs. Voters seem unconcerned with the direct benefits they receive from these programs—a supreme irony given that so many right-leaning regions in the United States have grown disproportionately dependent on various government programs over the last several decades. In her book, Mettler highlights Kentucky as a particularly striking example of this paradox. Between the late 1960s and 2015, the percentage of the average Kentucky resident's income from federal social transfer programs increased from 10 to 23. But in the late '90s, Kentucky started sending increasingly conservative politicians to Congress; today, some of the most conservative politicians in the U.S. House and Senate hail from the state.

Suzanne Mettler.

In an effort to explain this paradox, Mettler conducted a detailed survey in her book, asking participants about their backgrounds, personal policy experiences, and views of government. What she found is surprising. Survey participants who had utilized a higher number of visible, means-tested programs—programs like welfare or SNAP, in which it's very clear to recipients that the federal government is delivering the benefit—were substantially more likely to report that government programs had helped them "in times of need." A person who has utilized six or more visible, means-tested policies has a 100 percent probability of agreeing that the government has helped them in times of need; a person who's never utilized such a program has only a 41 percent probability of saying the same.

As for recipients of "hidden" and universal programs—all those Americans who receive the EITC or Social Security, or who get a tax break for their employer-sponsored health insurance—Mettler found no connection between utilization of a greater number of programs and positive views of government.

If Americans' personal experiences with government aren't shaping their views of government, what is driving their perception? The answer is complicated. Any number of factors—age, race, education, income level, party affiliation—contribute to citizens' views of government. But Mettler also found that the most reliable predictor of Americans' trust in government is how they feel about "welfare": People who don't like welfare don't like the government. And there's a particular demographic that's particularly likely to dislike welfare: middle-class Americans.

"Every single demographic group across the middle class, broadly defined, was significantly more likely to feel this way, while high-income Americans did not differ significantly from low-income people," Mettler says.

This finding holds across racial groups. While people of color have more positive views of welfare, overall, than white Americans, middle-income African Americans have less favorable views than low- or high-income African Americans.

"Middle-income people were very resentful of welfare," Mettler adds. "There's this sense of middle-income people feeling like they're getting the short end of the stick, and they're extrapolating from that and saying 'this is what government is like.'"

For a large group of middle-class Americans, then, resentment of "welfare," a social safety net program that barely exists anymore and serves less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, is driving a profound antipathy and distrust of the federal government. And that antipathy has given rise to an increasingly powerful political movement that promises to eliminate or dramatically cut many of the programs that middle-class Americans do benefit from (even if they don't know it).

In her research, Mettler uncovered another paradox—one that explains a lot about the current political moment. Not everyone hates the government; but the people who are the least aware of the government's role in their lives tend to participate the most vociferously in the political process. Those who are the most aware of how the government has helped them—recipients of means-tested, visible policies, for example—are the least likely to participate politically.

Mettler offers have a few suggestions for closing the trust gap between the U.S. government and its citizens. Policy design can help; policies that are visible to their recipients will be more effective in improving citizens' views of government than those that are hidden. Efforts to turn out and amplify the voices of Americans who do appreciate and value the government's roles in helping them advance economically are more urgently needed than ever before. But she thinks the country's greatest hope for renewal may lie in something more old-fashioned: community groups and civic organizations, such as the groups of (mostly female) activists springing up all over the country in the wake of the 2016 election. In particular, Mettler says she's encouraged by political scientist Theda Skocpol's portraits of these groups.

"Given this polarized time that we're in as a country, I think that relationship are the most important thing," Mettler says. "And what I mean are organizations working on the ground level and communicating with people, helping them make these kinds of linkages between policy and their lives."