Commentary: Voters surprised by reach of government benefits

Posted: September 24, 2016

Government benefits touch almost all New Jerseyans. We just don't always recognize them.

Most of us believe that social programs belong to the aged, disabled, low-income, or some other group of people. Then, depending upon the lens we are looking through, we tell our elected leaders to make government smaller and do away with some programs or the converse: Don't touch my program.

David Carr, the director of research and policy analysis for the William J. Hughes Center at Stockton, completed a study this summer that explored the concept of how many New Jerseyans are unaware that they receive the benefits of government social programs.

According to Carr, ". . .government has its own invisible hand - major social programs that are invisible to many Americans either because they are attached to universal entitlement or contributory systems; or, because the government acts indirectly, through private intermediaries or through indirect instruments such as the tax code."

We either do not know or have forgotten that programs such as Social Security, student loans, and yes, even the home mortgage interest deduction on our taxes, are all government social programs. We are far more likely to think of programs such as unemployment benefits, welfare and Medicaid as government social programs because they target the needs of the economically disadvantaged.

Many of these programs have become a part of our everyday lives and we merely accept that they are there and we are entitled to them. We do not see the involvement of government at the state and federal levels as directly running social programs that affect our lives. Some examples:

Tax incentives are used to encourage charitable giving, home ownership, economic development, and home ownership.

Student loans may be provided by a local financial institution, but they are subsidized by the federal government.

Social Security and Medicare have become the natural progression of our work lives leading to retirement. We paid into these, therefore we are entitled to participate in the program. We rely on these programs as we age.

Working with the Stockton Polling Institute, more than 800 New Jersey residents were surveyed on their participation in government social programs. Nearly 60 percent of those asked thought that they had never used a government social program. Yet 68 percent of these same people actually had participated in one or more of these programs. This was highly demonstrated when 45 percent of the respondents received Social Security but thought they had not been a part of a government social program. Approximately 60 percent of those who took out student loans or deducted their mortgage interest on their taxes were aware that they participated in a government social program.

These findings cut across political party lines. Republicans respondents who participated in these programs were less likely to realize that Social Security, Medicare, and the home-mortgage tax deduction were government social programs. Similarly, Democrats who benefited from student loans or the GI Bill were less likely to see them as government social programs. Independents were the least likely to recognize unemployment benefits as one of these programs.

The study "pushed" the issue with respondents to see how this would affect how they voted. When asked if they would support candidates for office who were going to cut one of these benefits, people were far less likely to vote for that candidate.

The information contained in this type of study helps us to form our own opinions on whether we truly want a smaller government or one less involved in our lives. It helps us recognize the role that federal, state, and local government play. As we wind down into the last months of the presidential and congressional campaigns and get ready to embark on New Jersey's gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, it is important to understand just what the "individual hand" means to each of us.

The complete report examines this in a lot more detail and gives far more insight. You can access it at www.stockton.edu/hughescenter, along with other public policy research and resources.

Sharon Schulman is executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. sharon.schulman@stockton.edu

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