Cornell study shows public has many misperceptions of government


Ordinary citizens have many gross misperceptions about federal government programs, so much so that a large portion of the government is effectively in a “submerged state,” according to a new survey from Cornell University.

In the Cornell survey of 1400 Americans, nearly half of people who received benefits such as home mortgage interest deductions, student loans or the earned income tax credit reported that they had not received a benefit from a government social program.

Perceptions and misperceptions of government activity have become an issue in recent debates over cutting costs and improving customer service. Some observers believe that public misperceptions have contributed to making federal employee pay and benefits a frequent target of proposed spending cuts.

Americans who complain “Get the government out of my Medicare!” are examples of the disconnect between perception and reality, said Suzanne Mettler, professor at Cornell and author of the study in Perspectives on Politics, in a recent report in the Cornell Chronicle. The federal government operates and pays for Medicare, which is a health insurance program covering older Americans.

Many citizens are largely unaware of the various under-the-radar government programs offering them support and assistance, including home mortgage interest deductions, student loans, child care credits and earned income tax credits, Mettler wrote in the report.

At the same time, interest groups are very aware of the programs and mobilize quickly to defend them.

"Seeing vested interests at the bargaining table turns citizens off," Mettler said. "Those dynamics have discouraged many of Obama's supporters and helped to provoke the Tea Party."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 26, 2012

OK, lets talk some other "government benefits": interstate highways, air traffic control, waterway and airways (spectrum) management, not to mention "defense"....there are many more. If someone takes $100 from you, and provides those services...you'd have had to pay for those services anyway, or do without them. They are "submerged". We take them for granted. We shouldn't.

Tue, Mar 27, 2012

To bring things into proper perspective, you need to re-word the phrase "Government funded" to "taxpayer funded" and all other similar wording concerning money from the "Government". That would bring a lot more honesty to any debate about Government programs. As far as I am concerned, any talk about "Government money" that plays down or totally ignores taxpayers has no credibility. Suzanne Mettler obviously needs to include herself when it comes to the ignorance issue.

Tue, Mar 27, 2012 What is is?

This is a very good article to show the ignorance of Americans in general and makes a very good point that "take it out on the Federal worker" is a misguided responses to a poor economy. However, it is severely flawed in its understanding of why people blame the government. Most of the blue "submerged" aid programs are merely tax credits and tax reductions on the people's own money. The government is taking people's money and graciously giving some of it back and calling it a federal aid program. That is far different than giving someone food stamps or subsidized housing.It is no wonder that people don't consider Home Mortgage Interest Deduction a government benefit. So while I agree many people are grossly ignorant of the federal government, let's not distort the truth by playing "gothca" with our definitions.

Tue, Mar 27, 2012

"Many citizens are largely unaware of the various under-the-radar government programs offering them support and assistance, including home mortgage interest deductions, student loans, child care credits and earned income tax credits, Mettler wrote in the report." If someone takes $100 from you and then gives you back $20, who is really being supported?

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