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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