Half of US social program recipients believe they "have not used a government social program"

"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." It's the "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" phenomena writ large: a society of people who subsist on mutual aid and redistributive policies who've been conned (and conned themselves) into thinking that they are rugged individualists and that everyone else is a parasite.

Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era (PDF) (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. “…a society of people who subsist on mutual aid and redistributive policies who’ve been conned (and conned themselves) into thinking that they are rugged individualists and that everyone else is a parasite.”

    This reminds me of Roger Ebert’s one-sentence summary of Objectivism: “I’m on board; pull up the lifeline.”

    And let’s not forget the wit and wisdom of Craig T. Nelson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTwpBLzxe4U

    1. Don’t forget the grocers that benefit from Food Stamps and the shareholders of privately owned Hospitals and physicians that benefit from medicare and Medicaid. 38% of corporations pay no income tax. Look at the tax subsidies for attorney fees for corporate /America and business people.

  2. Sure, if you count various tax deductions as “social programs”, which pretty much nobody else would do, and obviously not the people answering the question.

    I’ve driven on a highway — government social program?

    1. I agree. Also the G.I. Bill is NOT a social program. I had to do an enlistment term 3-4 years as a grunt before I could use it. Wound up doing 2 terms, but that’s a different story.

      I find this paper seriously disingenuous. The categorizations are either flawed or every individual AND corporation in this country has used a ‘social’ program.

      1. God you people are thick. You were paid for being a soldier; the GI Bill is NOT part of your paycheck. The purpose of the GI bill is to help you acclimate back into civilian life. The government thinks this is a good idea because it, rather wisely imo, chooses not to repeat the mistakes of the post Civil War and Post WWI eras, where legions of difficult to employ soldiers with understandable emotional problems ended up turning to violent crime when they couldn’t find work.

      2. Sorry but the GI Bill _IS_ a social program. It was created after WWII with the intention of pushing a generation of vets into the middle class. Just because you need to be in the service for X years doesn’t make it some sort of automatic benefit devoid of social adgendas.

      3. The GI Bill absolutely is a social program. We paid $1200 into it and receive $36,000 or whatever it is now. And with the new GI Bill, you don’t have to pay into it and you still receive it. How can you possibly fathom that that isn’t the government giving you a TON of money to go to a college of your choice after your service has been done?

        It sounds like you have a personal bias against taking from the government, or the accusation of such.

        I’m currently enlisted. It always tickles me when guys like you would rail against socialized healthcare for the nation when socialized healthcare is EXACTLY what we in the military have.

    2. Yes, roads are a government program. Last time I checked they were subsidized for the good of the country as a whole.

      But I agree I have doubts about calling mortgage deductions social programs in the same sense as a managed program.

    3. I’ve driven on a highway — government social program?

      That highway might have started out as a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

      “The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families, ages 18–25.”

      That’s exactly the sort of program that would be described as Stalinist if it were suggested by President Obama.

      1. Providing jobs by fixing the infrastructure is something that would be welcome by most Americans. Fixing it with people unemployed or on the dole, with all the compulsory rules of the CCC, that would be called Stalinist first by the class warfarers and lastly by the Tea Partiers, who are mostly over the maximum age for physical labor, heh.

    4. Yes, in fact, highways are a government social program, as is the clean water you drink everyday, the electricity you run your house on, and the food you eat without getting poisoned. All of those things are brought to you by government agencies and US tax dollars.

    5. You bet your bottom it’s a government program. Who else did built them and maintains them?

      Nice try, but the Interstate Highway system is one of the most successful Federal Government programs in US history.

    6. Actually, yes you are. It is a program nearly 100 years old. It is partially, but only partially supported by taxes on gasoline. Before it began, there was no continuous system of roads. States built their own (also social programs) wherever they willed.

      The first road systems were private, called “turnpikes” because the road building would turn the pike after you paid the fee. Perhaps you’d enjoy going back to free-market roads. I’m sure most of your fellow drivers wouldn’t.

    7. Yup, sure thing.

      Contrary to the ubiquitous propaganda of left and right there are no such things as capitalist and socialist states, market economies and planned economies. All economies are mixed economies involving a combination of mechanisms. Socialists can’t get away from capitalism and capitalists can’t escape socialism.

      The real debate should be a technical one as to which combination to deploy in order to maximise human welfare. Unfortunately, this fact does not suit the purposes of competing power interest groups who prefer to pursue their aims by flying under one flag or the other.

      When mankind finally wakes up to this (rather like replacing alchemy with chemistry) the world will be a happier, safer and more productive place.

      1. I agree with you there, and I would love to see some people with an understanding of this running for office, be it local or federal. There is little in life that benefits from extremism unfortunately when it comes to politics and the government everyone seems to be an extremist.

    8. Tax expenditures that seek to promote social goals are by definition social benefit programs. Your claim reveals the very sort of confusion that the respondants demonstrate in this study. The choice to spend a tax dollar or to forgo the collection of that dollar is different only in the perceived nature of the policy tool. The confusion grows when people accept and repeat myths about how social security isn’t a government social program because we “pay into the system,” which is ultimately false for reasons that should be crystal clear.

    9. Yes Roads are a government program,, who built them, the government, if you don’t want to use government programs then you can’t use the mail, roads, Utilities, water, sewage, drive under street lamps, send your children to public schools go to parks, go on riverways, fly on a plane, take amtrack, go to the hospital with out insurance or cash, call the police or the fire departments. They are all government programs.

    10. In fact, yes. Something those who consider taxes “theft” would do well to consider.

      1. Highways are authorized in actual words listed in the original US Constitution. Complaining about it does nothing unless you can get it removed through the amendment process.

    11. …and you just proved the point the report was making.

      those tax credits are social programs because they are an effort to adjust the share you pay based on your income. in other words based on your needs. it’s a social program for people of a certain income.

      highways are there for everyone to drive on and there are no needs base for them, everyone drives on them equally. there are no needs base for them. every qualified driver can use our roads, not every tax payer gets to claim every tax credit.

      you proved the point because you can’t see that you are enjoying special tax benefits that not everyone enjoys, you have to meet certain requirments.. a social safety net!

    12. That is sort of the point. We define what some people do as social leaching and what others do as normal, even though the effect is the same: taking money from the government to subsidize their actions.

      For instance, many people couldn’t afford their homes if they didn’t get the mortgage interest deduction. As such, their home ownership is directly subsidized by the government at tax payers’ expense. Now, there may be good reason to have such a program, but there is no denying what it is: a transfer of money from some people to other people.

      How is this different than food stamps, which are often railed against as free money to undeserving folk. Money is money. Whether it is given out to help you pay for a home or a poor mom feed her kids, it is money being taken out of some people’s pockets and put into another’s. If it is objectively wrong in any case, as many would argue, than we must universally consider it wrong in all cases.

      Obviously, there is room for a gray area. One must not either be in favor of all social programs or opposed to all social programs. One can reasonably argue that some are justified while others are not. But most of the argument against social programs is wrapped in a “No one deserves to live off the government dime!” Which, as this study shows, is most often spouted off by people who are living off the government dime.

  3. Love the post, but I’m a pedantic lit major: 2nd sentence misspelling, “…policies who’ve been conne…”. Fix to “conned”. And I can’t think of anything witty to say, so I’ll just tell you to play some ‘stones.


  4. Good luck getting virtually anyone in America (let alone hardcore “drown it in a bathtub” conservatives) to view things like tax-advantaged investments and interest deductions are the same thing as welfare and food stamps. I’ve been praying this doesn’t break into the mainstream as I don’t relish hearing conservative pundits tear into the red meat of telling ordinary people that liberals want to take away their tax breaks because they think they are the same as living on public assistance.

    1. Good luck getting virtually anyone in America … to view things like tax-advantaged investments and interest deductions are the same thing as welfare and food stamps

      You’re probably right, but then again, there’s a cohort of conservatives who claim to be against using the tax system for promoting social aims (other than simply raising revenue). A few years ago, a conservative writer in Canada started the ‘No Pigou Club” to counter the idea that governments can and should “shape policy for the better by raising taxes on bad things and subsidizing good ones.” Most of the tax deductions on this list look like the government trying to promote a ‘social good’ like going to college or buying a house. And since people not doing the ‘social good’ don’t get the tax break, I’m pretty comfortable saying its a social program.

      I would encourage really principled conservatives to not accept these Pigou-tainted tax deductions;)

      1. In that case, the reduced tax rate for capital gains and qualified dividends fall into the same category. The government tries to promote investment as a social good.

        So all of those Republican businessmen are really on the federal dole just as much as the welfare moms, retirees and the college students.

    2. I’m really scared of what conservatives will say too! I try to police my behavior based on what conservatives might think or say in response. It stops me for making any dangerous statements or arguments outside of the bounds of their expectations, thereby avoiding conflict or controversy, but also (and this is a necessary sacrifice as you seem to agree) it prevents me from doing anything to redefine or fundamentally challenge that perspective. C’est la vie!

  5. This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water supply. After that, I turned the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined what the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US Department of Agriculture inspected food and taking drugs which have been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

    At the appropriate time as regulated by the US Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built by local, state, and federal Departments of Transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve Bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

    After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to a house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and Fire Marshal inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.

    I then log onto the internet which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on freerepublic.com and Fox News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the Government can’t do anything right.

    1. This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity, which is getting way too expensive because the government relies on oil from foreign countries and won’t drill here or develop clean nuclear energy. Instead they pour money into solar, wind, and ethanol technologies that use more power to run properly than they produce. I then took a shower in the “potable” water provided by the municipal water supply. Although last week I received a concerning letter in the mail about higher than normal bacteria levels, so I should boil before drinking. After that, I turned the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels, then thought to myself what the hell does the FCC do? I pay for cable, and the channels I want to watch? Why does the cable I pay for need to be regulated? I watched this while eating my breakfast certified by the US Department of Agriculture, which approves almost all genetically modified fruits, vegies, and meat, and I take drugs which have been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. The same FDA that approved fen-phen and Posicor. But then again most of the stuff they approve probably won’t kill me, although the US has the highest cancer rates for an industrialized nation…but whos counting.

      At the appropriate time as regulated by the US Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory, or the Aztecs thousands of years ago, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved automobile that isn’t legal to drive because i don’t have a valid MA state inspection because the service engine soon light is lit on my dashboard. However I set out to work on the Mass Pike which sill has tolls even though it was paid off in 1982 and they were supposed to be taken down. No big deal I only hit 3 large potholes today that flattened one tire. I possibly stop to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve Bank. The same Fed Reserve that continues to devalue my hard earned money, and destroy the housing market, but hey we need the fed right?!? On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US Postal Service which is operating 2.5 billion dollars in the red every year. I would drop the kids off at the public school, but the public teachers union is striking so I had to miss work today to babysit.

      After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home, pay another toll, to a house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and Fire Marshal inspection. I kinda wish it did burn down because I’ll be underwater in my mortgage for the next 12 years, but hopefully the fed creates hyperinflation before then. My house was broken into, and it only took the police an average of 8.5 minutes to respond to my level 1 emergency. Not too bad, I was able to hide in my closet long enough for the rapist to die of old age.
      I then log onto the internet which was invented by Al Gore, who also invented climate change/global warming, or as I like to call it – weather. But his version is much more profitable. Then I turn on MSNBC and am one of the 200,000 people that watch Chris Mattews out of pity. I sure love to hear about that thrill he has for Obama. And I sure am glad the government is a part of everything I do i life.

      1. Wow, your life is a living hell. Maybe you should try a fresh start in someplace like Mogadishu.

      2. Gee, Anon #144, that sounds like you are living through hell itself.

        Here’s a tune which may serve to cheer you up, while reminding you of the terms under which we all live our lives…as a matter of fact, maybe you can hum it while fighting traffic, boiling drinking water, filling out your tax forms, writing and cashing checks, etc., etc., etc.

        But it does make me sad to think that if you are also a music-hater, then it won’t help you a bit.

        Here’s hoping it helps, eh?

      3. “I then log onto the internet which was invented by Al Gore, who also invented climate change/global warming, or as I like to call it – weather.”

        This is satire, right?

    2. I believe there is a difference between an agency that regulates and an agency that provides. The NHTSA did not make your car and they do not guarantee that it will run or that it is safe, they are simply a governing body that puts together a set of minimal specifications that auto manufacturers are required build to with the goal that every vehicle made will provide a minimum level of safety if it meets the specifications and passes a set of standardized tests.

      I consider a socialized government program to be one that provides something to someone that they are incapable of obtaining on their own or chose to utilize the government for despite their capability; and is a program that the recipients of did not contribute to. So food stamps is a good example, you can receive this benefit from the government without the requirement of contribution.

      The roads are not for many people, if you pay taxes then you are paying for driving on those roads. Radio is not because the government is not paying to run the radio station and they charge a fee for governing the use of radio frequencies. In all reality the FCC should be turning a solid profit, if it was governed by a private company they definitely would be.

      The utilities are not a socialized program, most utilities are corporations, yes they are governed and limited and pay licensing fees to government agencies, but the government is not responsible for providing you power from a nuclear power plant. No the government is paid to regulate the use of nuclear power so that it is ideally operated in a safe and consistent manner across the country.

      Now what is left off this list that really should be added is that the continuance of our freedom in the US and our presence as a global force around the world, is paid for and run by the government, and every single person on US soil is a beneficiary of that government program. That said the military is not a socialized program either, because while it protects our freedoms it also protects the power of the government, in truth the military does not protect our freedom what it protects is the governing body that provides a structure in which we have those freedoms.

      What am I saying? We should be careful as to what we call a socialized government program because much of what the government does is paid for by its citizens whom receive a benefit from taking part in paying for it, it is not handed to them, they pay for it.

      Socialized programs must exist, they should not require the government to exist but people are selfish. How many of your neighbors would donate 10$ a month so that a family could receive free groceries? Not enough! So the government steps in where we as humans fail to do our part.

      My argument sits on this, if you dont want to see more and more socialized government programs; do your part take an active role in helping others, go serve someone, go tutor a child, go pickup trash off the street, fix a meal for a homeless guy, take a family in need groceries, help a single parent home with the cost of health insurance, serve those around you. If even 20% of Americans did this there would be no need for government social programs.

      And for those of you wondering, yes I am serving my community on a consistent basis, are you?

    3. Too bad you didn’t use your name because I am totally stealing this and now I can’t give you credit for it.

  6. I agree with tylerkaraszewski, there is a difference between the government taking less of my money in taxes and my getting money someone else paid out. Most people would regard social programs as ones that deliver a direct benefit in the form of money, products, or services. These include Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps. It think that the question is misleading. I think most people recognize that they benefit from many government programs and services, such as road building and police and fire department services, and have no problem acknowledging that.

    1. Why are we talking about tax deductions? Look at that list above the article. Look at all programs that you claim benefits from. Those aren’t tax deduction schemes. Only 4 are tax deductions, and those 4 are direct subsidies of specific behaviors the government wants to promote. Why are you people discussing an entirely different subject than what the report in question is about?

  7. Of course tax deductions count. Did you get a return from claiming those deductions? Most likely. Would you have received the money if you had not claimed the deduction? No.

    The point is: People are whining about government handouts when they themselves are receiving handouts. (Ex: Google “michele bachmann farm subsidies”).

    1. Anon… your commentary, while entertaining, is also very misleading. Who does the government contract out to do most of what you listed? Yes, the private sector. Not the government. And just because the government did it or provides for it is not proof that nobody else cannot do it faster and/or better (stated case when UPS did a study years back saying they could do the USPS’s job at half the cost). I could go on but what is the point? My drivel here won’t amount to anything.

      Taxes are money taken from privately earned moneys within the private section (and public sector jobs when applicable… but of course those jobs are created via taxing the private sector). So, tax money, which is withheld throughout the year by the government, and which you might be lucky enough to get back, if you paid too much, or are able to have a tax break to help out, is simple giving more of the money back to the individual who actually earned it… It was their money to begin with. THAT is not a social handout… this explains you might not have a clue what you are talking about.

      1. “Who does the government contract out to do most of what you listed?”

        The government can do just as good or better job cheaper. Period. The government outsources because it is a fiscal and social policy designed to re-distribute wealth to private businesses. The private sector can do it faster because they cut corners. The private sector can’t compete price wise when a govt employee getting $30/hr vs $100 or more in the private sector. The only way this is sustained is by policy forcing the money to flow toward the expensive option. Your tax dollars would be much better spent inhouse rather than being contracted out.

      2. And the private sector is always better? Really? Have you ever worked for a company? The private sector can be wonderfully bad too, but it slaps a profit margin on it’s cost too.

  8. These programs are hardly equivalent to each other: a person taking a student loan pays it back with interest; people contributing on a regular basis towards their anticipated social security benefits and disability, and people getting a tax credit are having less of the money that belongs to them appropriated by the government. This is in contrast to programs like food stamps and welfare that require little or nothing from the recipient (other than a perennial willingness to pull the voting lever for the politicians who ensure the entitlements). Whether that is good social policy can surely be debated. However, is it right to compare the returning veteran being educated on the G.I. bill with the third-generation on the dole?

    1. “the third-generation on the dole.” Do you have any evidence that a specific American family has been on the dole for three generations?

      1. “the third-generation on the dole.” Do you have any evidence that a specific American family has been on the dole for three generations?

        Absolutely. I do. Intimately.

        There is a young gentleman we met though the Big Brothers program who is third-generation “dole.”

        But instead of complaining about “lazy people,” we try to do something about it. We’ve open up our home to him — we have him almost every weekend — and try to get him away from his toxic mother and teach him some real skills, like how to figure out what he wants in life, and figure out how he’s going to achieve it.

        But I’m afraid it may be a loosing battle. His mom is trying to get him thrown into Juvenile Hall “for a few years” for incorrigibility — he doesn’t clean his room, and he gets toothpaste all over the mirror when he brushes.

        And you? Spend much time with those on long-term public assistance (excluding the public assistance of tax breaks, of course!)?

    2. These programs are hardly equivalent to each other

      Nobody claims they ARE equivalent. Yet they can all broadly classed under government assistance.

      Just because a person taking a student loan intends to pays it back with interest doesn’t mean that the private sector would give him a loan. Just because someone fought for their country–and drew a paycheck while doing so–doesn’t mean that the private sector would recognize this.

      These are all, broadly speaking, projects the government has taken on in pursuit of a more common good, and has taken because the private sector is systemically incapable of recognizing the desirabilty of the common good.

      No-one is claiming the GI Bill is the same as Welfare. There are government programs that require more of the recipient and programs that require less. But pretending that they aren’t all government programs is not only disingenouous, but it makes you look like a hypocritical ass.

      1. Here here! These programs are not identical, but broadly speaking, I agree that they ARE government social programs with social benefits. I think it takes a village to raise a village, and until we figure that out, we will not be “taking care of our own.”

        I am reminded of my brother who once decried paying any dollar from his paycheck to educate “someone else’s kids” (he had none) or even to put out the fire at “someone else’s home” (he owned none). Now he is all upset that jobs are going overseas, and wants “someone else” to stop that. We ARE someone else, in the end.

    3. The government pays the interest on student loans while you are in school and if you defer the loan, as well as guaranteeing the loan if you default. So yes, student loans are social programs.

    4. “This is in contrast to programs like food stamps and welfare that require little or nothing from the recipient (other than a perennial willingness to pull the voting lever for the politicians who ensure the entitlements). Whether that is good social policy can surely be debated.”

      I think I speak for most in these programs: my effort in applying for SNAP (“food stamps”) for my family (laid off, new baby) was far from “nothing”. These programs also typically request regular reapplication and proof of income.

      “However, is it right to compare the returning veteran being educated on the G.I. bill with the third-generation on the dole?”

      Yes, if you believe both represent social contracts between a government and its citizens.

    5. Your student loan is government subsidized-you pay back interest at a nice low rate because of this. You can also deduct the interest on your tax return. Your social security and medicare contributions constitute a portion of the benefits you could potentially receive.

    6. Avrakdavra, while I can see an argument that tax deductions might not count as a “government social program” (though clearly it they are specific rebates that go towards a specific set of Americans to advance a particular social goal), I can’t see how it can be said that student loans are not a government program. Do they get paid back with interest? Yes, but then that can be said with most social programs in the form of taxes. The benefit is that it is a low interest guaranteed loan as opposed to a market based higher interest loan. If the government began giving out low interest loans for anyone who wanted to say, purchase a car, would you consider this a new government social program (albeit a terrible one)? Of course. Everyone who got a student loan from a Federal program benefited (and is still benefiting) from a Federal government social program.

    7. A person getting a student loan pays it back with interest, yes, but the amount of interest paid is well under the market rate for non-government loans. It’s free money for the loan taker.

  9. My brother has been on SSDI (Social Security Disability) for 10 years. Deservedly so, as he has an illness that prevents him from working full time. As part of the SSDI, he also receives Medicaid, making him one of the few people I know with full medical coverage.

    But there is a complete disconnect between the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has received and the, as he puts it, “poor, lazy people living off the government.” It is a crazy, maddening conversation. He’s hardcore conservative, and doesn’t even realize that he’s fighting against himself.

  10. An income tax deduction for mortgage interest is a “social program” only as much as an increase in the marginal tax rate is “socialism.” Making that claim only hurts your case. Looks to me more like 28% or so of “social program recipients” have the mistaken belief.

    1. Um, no. As a renter, I pay higher income taxes to make up for that income tax deduction for mortgage holders. There’s no difference between lowering someone’s taxes to offset someone’s expense and having the government send them a check to do so. Both cost tax money.

      Mind you, I’m not complaining. I have no problem paying higher taxes so that more people can own their own homes. I hope to take advantage of that tax deduction someday in the future. But to take this tax deduction and then pretend it doesn’t cost the government money, or that you aren’t benefiting from government redistribution of other people’s tax dollars, is delusional, and that is the point of the post.

      1. If the US government had a balanced budget, you would be paying higher taxes to subsidize mortgage deductions.

        The people who are really paying to subsidize tax loopholes are mostly future taxpayers after tax rates have to be raised to cover the federal debt and balance the budget.

  11. While I’m not familiar with all of these programs, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that someone who takes advantage of a tax deduction, but still owes income tax is any less of a “rugged individualist” for it.

    For example the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction may reduce the amount an individual pays to the government, but that’s no really a benefit, because a “rugged individual” considers the baseline to be getting to keep the money he or she earns as income and any money taken, even if it’s less than might otherwise be taken isn’t really a subsidy.

    Unless the original author only meant to include those programs when they reduce the individuals tax burden to below zero, it would be telling that letting people keep slightly more of the money they earn is considered a a “social program”.

    Certainly there are things that are paid for by the government with funds collected from the tax payers that benefit individuals, and in those cases where the benefit exceeds the cost to an individual it is reasonable to consider that imbalance a form of subsidy, social program or other benefit, though individualists and collectivists can (and do) argue forever about the relative costs vs benefits in individual cases (what’s the monetary benefit someone receives from having a police force vs. the cost, for a classic example)

    This framing of a tax break as a social program seems pretty disingenuous, but is in line with the rhetoric about referring to tax cuts as government expenditures that is being bandied about so much lately. Things like automatic withholding of income have gone a long way towards reframing the issue in favor of the idea that all income is owned by the government and any amount left for individuals to use should be considered a gift or service from our beneficent leaders.

  12. I agree with some of the above posters. Characterizing a mortgage interest deduction as a social program is a bit, shall we say, idiosyncratic. Perhaps it’s common for people who write papers with titles like “Reconstituting the Submerged State,” but for normal people?

    By that logic, most working class people receive tens of thousands of dollars in social programs a year: the income that they don’t pay in taxes.

    1. A mortgage interest deduction is most certainly a social program. Money that could be spent on schools, pre-natal care, vaccinations, or whatever is being directed towards middle-income folks so they can buy more house.

      1. A mortgage interest deduction is most certainly a social program. Money that could be spent on schools, pre-natal care, vaccinations, or whatever is being directed towards middle-income folks so they can buy more house.

        All the money you made last year — assuming you made any — could have been spent on schools, pre-natal care, etc. Does that mean that your entire paycheck is a social program?

        You seem to be coming from a belief that there is a precise amount of tax that everyone should pay, and that any reduction of that is a gift. How is that precise amount determined? Is it a divine right the government receives from on high? Is it just whatever they happen to say it is? Is it permissible to question that amount, or does doing so brand one as some kind of loony? Do we need to choose between corporate masters and government masters?

      2. mortgage interest deduction is totally a social program. It makes it more affordable for people to own homes. The government considers home ownership a social good and thats why they do it. If not for that credit, many of those people could not afford to own the homes they do. Same as the government feels its a social good to give poor women with children WIC checks for food. It is good for us to have women and children eating even if they don’t have the money. Someone along the line thought it was good for us to have people buy homes more expensive than they might be able to afford without the credit.

    2. No it isn’t. That deduction is a subsidy to promote home ownership. It is a social program to move people out of apartments and into homes; out of being renters of value and in to being owners of value. Same thing with the rest of the subsidies (all four of them) on that list of 19 government programs.

  13. Interesting data, although I’m unclear what it really tells us. One could say that entitlement enters the culture until you don’t even realize it’s there. Or that people underestimate how large the welfare state intrusion has grown and therefore the effects the leviathan has on society (rising costs, mistaken blame on the market).

    From the paper: “Reconstituting the submerged state has been doubly difficult because while the stakes have been highly apparent to the groups that have benefited from them, they were not very visible to most Americans. Most people perceived only the market at work: they have little awareness that many social benefits they receive emanate from a submerged state that is structured by public policy and subsidized by government. Neither do they realize that many such policies disproportionately benefit wealthy citizens. They are unlikely to know the extent to which government policy promotes the profitability of some industries by offsetting their costs in serving citizens, whether as consumers or borrowers. The functioning and effects of the submerged state remain murky, if not largely hidden, to most citizens.”

    Anyways, I need to point out that “mutual aid” is a misnomer for welfare programs. Mutual aid is voluntary, tax-funded welfare programs are not.

    For some historical perspective on what mutual aid really means, see fraternal societies, lodge practice and other voluntary organizations that prevailed until they got crowded out by the welfare state and suppressed by restrictive interventions during the first half of the 20th century. http://asrblog.com/2010/05/26/the-health-care-debate-and-the-suppression-of-lodge-practice/

  14. Even as a self-professed tax-and-spend liberal, I can’t agree that tax credits are the same as social programs. While I don’t agree that government programs are “spending my money” as the right wing likes to argue (you are not an island – this is society), there’s really no way to stretch it to say that a tax credit is a social program. Student loans, sure (providing financing for a high-risk/high-reward population at low interest rates is a classic situation the private sector is not willing to take on), but not a tax credit.

    Would you argue then that people were still a “recipient of government social programs” if all of these individual credits were abolished and the tax rate lowered across the board? Of course not.

    There are good arguments to be made for the societal benefits government brings – this is not one of them, and its speciousness weakens the overall case for real social programs.

    1. @Joshua Ochs (#16)

      Um, yes. All citizens who pay tax and then claim a tax reduction (or tax credit) are increasing the load on those who do not make (or are not eligible for) such claims. You cannot possibly say that this is not a social program – tax credits are given to encourage certain behaviour as opposed to other behaviours. It doesn’t matter if it is to buy your own house, get a more fuel efficient vehicle or spend more money on private health insurance for your parents – your are (theoretically at least) being encouraged to do something that will cost the state less in the long run (or being bribed to do something that will win votes in the short term).

      *sigh* The term ‘socialism’ is thrown around so much in American political discourse by so many people that don’t know what it actually means. A purely ‘Capitalist’ society would be as horrible to live in as a purely ‘Socialist’ one – as ever we a striving to meet a middle point that keeps shifting day by day.

  15. Well, e.g. the EITC is a refundable program which means you can get money out of the government even if you don’t owe any tax. The government thinks of them as different delivery mechanisms but calls them all social programs (citation: “Running Social Programs Through the Tax System” at http://www.irs.gov)

    Even allowing for such confusion, there is obviously some cognitive dissonance going on. I would put this down to demonization of government. There is so much emotion in this argument; it’s become pretty difficult to have a civil discussion online about it. When people are this worked up, they distort the facts to fit their emotions. This is a problem in politics at the best of times, but lately it’s just terrible.

  16. To someone who rents the mortgage deduction sure looks like a social program for home owners. Its a tax exception to give money to a particular group of people. From an economic perspective it distorts the market far more clearly than giving people food stamps.

  17. Wow, it is refreshing to see some thoughtful commenters here. I agree with the other critical thinkers that have questioned the use of the term “social programs” to describe tax breaks. If the study focused on Transfer Payments then it would seem that the number is between 25-28%. Honesty is important if you desire credibility.

  18. To “use” a social program one must benefit without giving. And a social program is one that is paid for with tax dollars out of the treasury, or Fort Knox, or whatever.

    And, separation of “employer-employee” status must be taken into account.

    A more correct definition of “social program” is “charity program” where money is taken from the government and given to people as a subsidy with no expectation of pay back.

    A Coverdell or 529 Educational IRA is not a social program.
    Tax deductions are not social programs.
    Tax credits are not social programs.
    A paid-back student loan is not a social program.
    Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are not social programs. The money came from me and my employers, not from the governmemt.
    Unemployment insurance is covered by employer taxes, somewhat, so this is even questionable as a social program.
    Veteran’s benefits are nothing more than pay back for duties served in the same way that an employer would provide for their retirees and past employees. Not that most employers do this directly anymore.
    The GI Bill is pay back and nothing more than reimbursing education expenses which many, many companies also do.

    So, the only items on that list that are fully classed as charity programs are:
    Welfare/Public assistance,
    Government subsidies (this would include Housing, farming, industrial, and every other payout that the government does with no expectation of payback), and
    Food stamps.

  19. What’s even more interesting is that unlike tax breaks for the rich, money that goes to people for these things is pretty much 100% guaranteed to go into the system, so that money flows into whatever goods and services they’re intended for. Unemployment benefits are especially effective.

    And yes, tylerkaraszewski, infrastructure like highways, paid for by taxes are most definitially a social program. You’re taking tax money from everyone (well, depending on what you’re taxing) and spending it on something that not everyone uses (not everyone has a car, or uses that highway, etc.), but everyone benefits in some way. Better transportation = more efficient transportation of goods and services = cheaper goods and services + more employment, etc.

    Better healthcare leads to healthier people and lower health costs and more profitable businesses, etc.

    Everything is interconnected now.

  20. “I’ve driven on a highway — government social program?”

    It’s a government program, but not a social program. It’s a stretch to call some of these “social programs,” but they’re all indubitably government programs.

    I bet if Obama brought up putting the unemployed to work revamping the country’s infrastructure, people would cry “socialism,” despite the implication that Eisenhower was somehow a socialist.

  21. Just because it’s wrapped into tax law does not mean it’s not a social program, just that it involves qualifications based on the trading of money and not something else like living conditions. People are just terrified at socialism due to ignorance, the same reason they are completely unaware the government does stuff for them.

  22. I seem to recall some sort of “work-fare” program happening at some point, somewhere. you know, that program where if you are on social assistance for too long they bus you to a “job” where you work for less than minimum wage serving coffee or something for eight hours?
    Kind of like, “if you can’t find work by now, we’re gonna work you half to death as punishment”?

    What happened to that program, anyways?

    1. Ahhh, workfare.

      Hard labor, for *zero* wages, that costs a government worker to administer, for the benefit of a private company, with no injury insurance, that leads to more welfare recipients when said company fires their paid workers. What could possibly go wrong?

      Also, for all those convinced there are infinite jobs out there for everyone, start an employment agency!

  23. Try to get ANY other kind of loan at that rate when you are 17-18 years old and you will all of a sudden realize WHY this is a govt subsidy program.

    Do you know what UNDERWRITING means?

    OR are you not curious why something with such a high default rate has a low interest rate?

    Maybe YOU should lend students money and see how much profit return YOU get.

    1. Maybe Student loans have such low interest rates as you call them because they can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of sallie mae student loan debt is with you for life. However, the interest rate is not as low as those afforded the banks which will recieve 0% govt $$ and reinvest in govt debt at 3%, providing no benefit to the general populace and only enriching the shareholders and the mgmt of the banks who will reap billions in stock options and bonuses at our expense.

  24. There was very little thought put into the list or some of these comments. The label “government social program’ is inaccurate.

    For example, Veterans Benefits/GI Bill. hey established that for WWII veterans AFTER the war. That was a social program.

    For my generation. post-Vietnam, volunteer Marine, they had it written into the contract. It was part of the reason why you signed up, like free health insurance. You took low wages — for example Hazardous Duty Pay, what civilians think of as Combat Pay, was $4 a day — in exchange for a future benefit. Similar case with Social Security. The first recipients got a social benefit. By my generation, we were paying our way. I, and my employer, still pay into it. The government might administer it, but it’s not a government social program. SSI is a government social program.

    Unemployment insurance is another example. I pay & my employer pays, and EACH STATE pays people if they are fired or laid off. Yes, the government CAN extend that, which makes that extension a social program.

  25. The comments give a pretty clear picture of why Americans are so oblivious. Even when people are told that tax breaks and government hand-outs are simply two sides of the same coin, they still can’t seem to make the connection.

  26. what first struck me when i looked at the included table, were the bottom 3 entries … over 1/4 of the recipients of those programs don’t seem to understand how they work? didn’t understand the question? intentionally lied?

  27. It’s a bit philosophical, but I would challenge the formulation that all the money “before tax” on your pay slip “belongs to you”, or that tax is “taking what belongs to you”.

    The simplest way to define what property “belongs to you” is to go by what you’re legally entitled to possess.

    Going by some other standard is going to open a whole can of worms. You have to put up some kind of moral theory of ownership and defend it. In various times and places it’s been held that you’ve the right to own what you can take and keep by force. No-one here would hold that something “belongs to you” simply because you have the force to take it, though.

    The “before tax” figure on your pay slip is determined by a whole web of social arrangements of long historical standing. It would have to be recalculated in terms of the whichever moral theory that you propose to go by in determining the moral definition of “belong to” — possibly recalculated downwards, if you’re getting a lot of benefit from stuff other people have done in a framework you don’t morally agree with.

    1. “In various times and places it’s been held that you’ve the right to own what you can take and keep by force.”

      This belief is still held by those in government. Income tax is not voluntary- it is taken by the threat of force (or in some cases actual force). The income tax was supposed to be temporary and in the US, would not be considered to have a “long historical standing.” Also, many people do not have their income tax withheld from their paychecks due to self-employment, therefore they are actually writing checks to the IRS each quarter. These people usually have a true understanding of how insidious the income tax is. People should have a right to the fruits of their labor. I am not against taxes- just income taxes as it is a form of slavery (if you really want to get philosophical). Sales taxes are a much better method of taxation because it encourages capital formation and discourages blind consumerism and debt accumulation.

      1. Utter rubbish. The government provides citizens with a vital service (civilization), for which it charges a fee. If you don’t pay the fee for it, of course you’re not going to be allowed to participate in society. That’s not ‘the threat of force’, it’s just good ol’ capitalism at work.

      2. Isn’t that still a social program? The government is encouraging or discouraging some sort of behavior, whether via carrot or stick.

  28. These are all absolutely “government social programs.” A program can consist of recieving food stamps or recieving a tax cut, either way you are benefiting from the program because you qualify for it. Just because there is a different method of payment (stamps vs. credit toward taxes) doesn’t make it NOT a program! So amazing to me that there were immediately several comments denying something so simple and innocuous, really. I guess that was the point of the study. Too bad even when it is pointed out to people, they continue to argue with it, instead of learning something new.

    1. Too bad even when it is pointed out to people, they continue to argue with it, instead of learning something new.

      And it’s too bad that when others express their opinion, other folks are missing a chance to learn something new — namely that reasonable people can have a different perspective on things. Instead, they entrench and continue to believe that there is only one reasonable way to look at things.

  29. Anybody who’s ever won any state lottery money has benefitted from a social program, then. Lotteries are marketed as being beneficial to education budgets, are they not?

    Put aside the reality that every dollar spent on lotteries simply replaces the dollar that got swept out of the state education budget and into the general fund for whatever a powerful legislator’s whim might be…which makes it vote-buying spending disguised as social spending.

  30. If the definition of “social program” is: “anything purchased with money collected via tax *or* with money that could have been collected via tax if that income were taxed.” then it makes the whole discussion moot since all financial transactions are implicitly participation in “social programs”.

    Seriously, if that is your argument, then it’s a pointless discussion.

  31. How is that precise amount determined?

    We have a progressive tax rate that determines the base amount owed by each citizen according to income.

    Is it a divine right the government receives from on high?

    No, it is a civil duty performed by elected officials and public employees.

    Is it just whatever they happen to say it is?

    Of course it is. Who else is going to set the tax rate but the government?

    Is it permissible to question that amount, or does doing so brand one as some kind of loony?

    It’s a democracy. Question away. If people are calling you loony, then it’s probably for other reasons.

    1. We have a progressive tax rate that determines the base amount owed by each citizen according to income.

      So, if they lower the base rate, that’s not a social program, but if they allow a deduction, it is?

      As another poster pointed out, you can define social programs to include both money spent on people and money not collected in taxes, but then the whole conversation is silly: everything is a social program, and we all live only through the largess of the government.

      1. Neither lowering the base rate nor allowing a deduction for say pens count as a “program”. The EITC counts as a “program” because of the way it is organized. That is why the IRS calls it the “EITC program”, but it doesn’t call office supply deductions the “free pens program”.

  32. The examples shown seem to have little broad-based relationship to one another. When I was in the military they excused my pitiful pay by telling me that things like potential retirement benefits, VA benefits, GI Bill benefits, health care, access to the exchange service and commissary were all part of my pay. Thus I wasn’t pitifully paid, I was paid fairly to risk my life because of all of these wonderful things I might not have thought of as pay. Now a professor tells me that I might have just as well been on welfare, living in the projects, and eating on foodstamps — it’s all the same to her. Could her ivory tower be just a bit too high?

    1. Defining all these things as government social programs does not mean that the author thinks that being so poor as to need government assistance to get by is exactly the same thing as being a member of the military. Surely that is obvious? Defining the relative moral worth of the two broad categories would be a difficult if not impossible exercise, in any case. There are good people on welfare and pricks in the military, and vice versa.

  33. As noted above, the definition is a program run by the government to some social end. There are some of them listed in the IRS report I cited above. It’s not that difficult of a concept. Maybe “program” is a little vague, but I think in the government context it’s pretty clear. It’s a system defined by laws and regulations with a specific title that’s run by the government.

    As I said, refundable tax credit programs mean that you can get a payment from the government even if your tax bill was zero. Hard to see the difference from a straight benefit payment.

    As for non-refundable tax-credit programs, here we get into the territory of finding a clear way of defining “belongs to me” that doesn’t refer to the law, and which everyone can agree on. It’s simplest to say that what belongs to you is what legally belongs to you.

  34. There’s something else missing here – if you or your kids have gone to a public university, you have benefited massively from government handouts. I’m not talking about Pell grants or student loans, either. The fact of the matter is that your tuition and fees don’t cover all (or at some schools, even a majority) of the schools’ operating expenses. Much of the remainder comes from grants from federal and state agencies such as the NSF, NIH, EPA, etc. Even if you don’t get any grants or loans, any public university education is subsidized by taxes.

  35. Social programs are all about using government power to manipulate the citizens in order to achieve a goal which the government sees as a good thing. Giving food stamps so that people don’t starve, taxing alcohol and cigarettes in an attempt to reduce consumption of these potentially harmful vices, and yes, giving tax breaks to home owners and breeders are all forms of social programs. I think governments ought to have such manipulations, but a rugged individualist ought to not just eschew food stamps but those sneaky tax breaks. Make your own decisions on whether to buy a house or have children! Don’t be bribed!

  36. I can’t believe people on BoingBoing are seriously arguing that SS is *not* a social program! This is the last place I’d expect to find that level of cognitive dissonance.

  37. Why do people think the mortgage deduction exists, if not for social policy? It exists because the government wants to promote what it views to be a desirable social outcome: more people owning homes. It wasn’t birthed with the tax code.

  38. Mettler has a slightly less technical version in Washington Monthly this issue, writing

    As a matter of budgeting, however, there is no difference between a tax break and a social program: both have to be paid for, either by raising tax rates or by adding to the deficit. Eugene Steuerle, a tax economist and political appointee in the Reagan administration, said of the distinction between tax expenditures and direct social spending, “One looks like smaller government; one looks like bigger government. In fact, they both do exactly the same thing.”

  39. The problem is there’s a stigmatization against receiving benefits from the government, so therefor people are not going to view programs they benefit from as being government social program of some sort or another. Americans are taught to be independent and self-supporting. Taking anything from the government indicates you failed on that matter.

    Also, it’s real easy to forget when you’re 50 and worked hard everyday since you were 16 that you had the Pell Grant back in college.

  40. My first instinct is to agree with the comments saying that tax breaks are not social programs, but on reflection, I believe that is not correct.

    For explanation, consider *why* those tax breaks exist. They exist because, from a legislator’s point of view, spending is easier to get signed into law (and approved by voters) if you disguise it as a tax break. They were conceived in the first place as social programsn(intended to modify society by rewarding certain behaviors), but disguised as tax code for political expedience. *That* is what makes a tax break different from a reduction in the tax rate.

  41. Actually, it probably would be better all around if the home mortgage deduction *were* turned into a more explicit subsidy.

    The ostensible reason for the existing deduction is to encourage homeownership among people who might not otherwise be able to afford a home. But the deduction is not well-designed for that purpose. As it works now, you get no benefits from it *unless* you pay enough in mortgage interest and other deductions to exceed the standard deduction. Which tends to mean that folks with small mortgages (who tend to be either low-income or frugal) get little or no benefit.

    On the other hand, people with large incomes get an outsized benefit, since the deduction is essentially a subsidy at the taxpayer’s marginal rate (which increases as income increases). These are the people who generally don’t need help to buy a home, but they soak up most of the cost of the subsidy.

    If we’re going to keep a home mortgage subsidy around at all, targeting it more precisely (such as replacing it with a capped tax credit at a lower rate) will be both more useful and less costly to the government. But there are enough well-to-do homeowners and real estate agents that would lose out on that change that it would be hard to enact.

  42. The government provides citizens with a vital service (civilization), for which it charges a fee.

    And there is room for many different opinions as to exactly how high the civilization fee ought to be.

    Personally I like the 15-18% (federal spending as a percent of GNP) which was in place during the ’50s to the ’80s, hardly a time when barbarian hordes laid waste to a USA bereft of civilization.

    Get federal spending down to that level, and I’d be happy to pay for it with tax rates set as steeply progressive as any boinger would like.

    1. Agreed that government spending should be a lower percentage of GDP (though not sure what that should be exactly). But the bigger issue is around what government spends on — regardless of the percentage of GDP that is government spending.

      At this point the two biggest chunks of outlay BY far, our military expenditures and our entitlements (SS/Medicare/Medicaid).

  43. Minds change about taxes when years of receiving income tax refunds become years of additional income tax payments. One might be tempted to divide the points-of-view in this thread thusly, were one a lazy generalist.

  44. Do corporate welfare programs count (e.g. defense funds funneled to the congressman’s company of choice) or are individual benefits the only ones that merit hostility?

  45. Trolls, trolls everywhere…

    Why are we even arguing over what is and isn’t a social program?

    More or less anything the government is funding is a social program. And that includes state/local governments. Your roads, EPA/FDA/these tax breaks in a round about way. The reality is money in (taxes) should in theory equal money out to programs.

    No one should really argue that. (Perhaps we can argue that we need to pay down the national debt, but that’s a different issue.)

    I would guess what most conservatives mean when they say things about people being lazy and receiving handouts is more of a generalization to the idea of their input into society. It has less to do with directly with that specific social program than it does with the fact that person is either abusing the system or really is too lazy to do something. Given someone who is truly disabled and unable to work few people would say we shouldn’t help them. An example: my dads best friends (they lived across the street) wife became technically disabled. Something about her back. Yet she drives a car, goes shopping, works in the yard, and more or less is out and about. Yet she draws full disabilities. If you can live a normal life then why isn’t there a job that you can reasonably do? This is just an example.

    Also as a side note, it irks me when people talk about the government like it’s a corporation. That it happens to bestow its glory on us peons. That somehow all it’s power and goodness just rains down from the heavens. Bullshit. The government is a bureaucratic nightmare powered by our tax dollars. At this point I see little hope for it all being fixed, but the vast majority of Americans will agree that something needs to be done.

  46. To be perfectly fair, I think that there is a valid, objective distinction to be made between receiving from the government MORE than you contribute in taxes and receiving from the government LESS than you contribute in taxes. For better or worse, I think a lot of people are much more opposed to the former than to the latter.

  47. Tax credits are social programs, now?

    Sure, to see that people on food stamps don’t consider it a social program is funny, but claiming tax breaks are “social programs” is really grasping at straws, and IMHO ruins the message the compiler of the chart was trying to send.

  48. The government in nations like the US and the UK isn’t a “them”. The government is us – or, more precisely, a proxy for our collective will and shared needs.

    Specifically, OUR government is a means to perform more efficiently necessary services that arise from living together and sharing the benefits of society.

    Our governments may currently be flawed, or even broken, but that does not change the basic concept of representative government, nor its value – and necessity – for a healthy society. The answer is not to kill “them”, it is, as self-governing free people, to fix what is broken and repair the flaws.

    It is distressing to see the degree to which even those who defend social programs refer to government as “them”. Reagan and Thatcher have won the framing game, and we all suffer the consequences – not least those who stand to benefit most from the very services they seek to abolish.

  49. Student Loans have been known to be a total scam for over decade now and should no more be on this list of “beneficial” government programs than “free housing” for people in jail.

  50. Maybe there’s an easier way of looking at this. If we assume that a progressive income tax is fair, then:

    1) Anything that affects all taxpayers within an income bracket equally should be considered “tax code.”

    An across-the-board reduction would fit this category – it would not be a social program. Put differently, such adjustments redistribute income/tax savings equally across the affected tax brackets.

    “Tax code” changes should be considered changes in what your representative government, through due process of law, has determined is your fair share of the cost of government. Anything left over is what you legally own. If you want to own a larger share of your gross income, go through the regular channels of representative government.

    2) Anything that DOESN’T affect all taxpayers within an income bracket equally should be considered a “social program.” You owe your fair share as determined under 1); anything deducted from that fair share is a credit in the hypothetical balance sheet between what you legally own and what the government legally owns. By nature, these are not progressive – they’re not necessarily regressive, either, it’s just a different set of criteria.

    Most of the tax credits mentioned above fit into this category. They redistribute income from those who don’t qualify for the credit to those who do–or, alternatively, they redistribute income from future taxpayers, in the form of government debt, to present-day taxpayers who qualify for the credit.

    Thus these deductions are substantively different from an across-the-board decrease in the tax rate. The costs of the former will be unfairly redistributed to future taxpayers or contemporaries in a similar tax bracket; the costs of the latter will be distributed equally among taxpayers in a similar tax bracket.

    In short, the difference is in who bears the costs of a rate decrease or a tax credit: is it borne equitably, or inequitably?

    (Let me add that I’m among those who think government spending as a percentage of GNP is currently too high to be sustainable. At the same time, all this tax-credit voodoo really tweaks my tweezers.)

  51. Mortgage interest relief is most certainly a social program but unfortunately it is a very bad one. I don’t think it provides any actual benefit.
    Housing is one of the small number of markets that actually impact directly on consumers; you actually look for houses, think about how much you can afford, bid for them and so on.You have a certain amount you can afford, there is a certain supply to bid on and a particular number of competing buyers. The tax relief slightly increases the apparent amount you can afford to pay each month for your mortgage (I’ll ignore the small number of smug buggers that can afford to buy cash) but it does the same for you competing prospective buyers. Given the way housing markets work they will likely be of broadly similar income and wealth levels so the effect will be very similar. All that happens is that everyone likely to be competing with you can now afford to offer the same increase in price. So the price you end up paying goes up. You get no more housing value.

    It isn’t an essential part of a tax code. Canada does quite well without it. The UK has let it fade away over the years.

  52. There’s a few higher entries missing from this list, I’ll give one:

    Stadium Subsidy 100%

    Interestingly, that money will never be paid back or recouped, any more than it would going into thousands of tiny tummies.

  53. It’s bizarre to me that so many commenters are having an emotional reaction about whether tax breaks are social programs. There’s a smooth gradient from “welfare” to “tax break” ! It’s right there on the chart! Welfare is “mostly” and tax breaks are “sorta”. Why you gotta freak out about whether it’s one or the other?

  54. Forgetting simple one public grade school, middle school and high school education. Roads we drive, police, fire, public parks, the list is almost endless.

  55. Jeez. The criticisms here tend just a TOUCH toward reductio ad absurdum. WTF? I thought you people were smarter than 1st-gen logical fallacy. Americans… :)

  56. I have to agree with the people who think that the controversy is disingenious. It seems to me the people answering at the top portion of the survey have more clue about what current language usage means than Dr Mettler.

    I think part of the problem is that most people who hear the question mentally convert it to a “government social justice program”, which I would include food stamps, extending unemployment, subsidized housing. Certainly things that just reduce your effective tax rate like EITC (which is just a FICA refund for low wage earners, I mean how is this different from saying the first 15K isn’t subject to employee FICA on a sliding scale, that you fill out another form?) aren’t anything but an indication of our overly complicated tax codes.

    If you mean a government program that has social benefits, well of course everyone has used it, most of us went to public schools at some point. Or used public roads. But really if this counts, I think the question strikes me as meaningless.

    I’m surprised the “child deduction” on your 1040 isn’t on that list. If a house deduction counts, surely that does. Have a child, take the deduction, used a social program. My thought is this question would show the emptiness of the author’s point.

    I think people are getting their buttons pushed since they do indeed get differing treatment based on social considerations but don’t consider themselves on the dole. I think it would be fairer to consider what people’s net balance is versus the government (Do I pay more in taxes or get more in benefits). Hard to calculate, but probably more what people are thinking. Especially regarding cash benefits or “unearned” benefits. (Note that each person will often redefine unearned to exclude their benefits.)

    The fact that people use language differently and with imprecision shouldn’t be news. But the fact that we all care so much, well that’s more interesting.

  57. Just the other day I read some angry comments about Obamas’ willingness to touch Social Security. (I don’t even recall whatever it was he did, but small potatos seemingly): still: “How DARE he?! That’s OUR money!!! WE -SLAVED- for that money and it’s OURSOURSOURS!!!”

    granted, that’s a distillation, but the drift was the same.

    So I have a great idea for those that despise government handouts: once you reach the retirement age, you get all your money back. Every penny you put in, you get. With a fair intrest added, AND adjusted for inflation. All those SS dollars the mean old gummint stole from you over the years is finally yours! The catch: once your contribution is returned, that’s it.

    No more for you. And of course Medicare should be run the same way right? Over the course of 45 years of employment you contributed, say, 68K to Medicare. . .so as long as you stick to checkups and generic meds: no problem!

    If you need a new hip of course. . .well…hope you’ve been saving.

    So is my idea great or what? Saving money, no handouts, and everyone gets exactly what they contributed.

    How simple. How fair. How…immoral.

    SS and Medicare are unfunded State welfare socialism that (along with our bloated Defence) is the bar none biggest threat to our nations fiscal survival.

    So…do we let sick old people starve and die of treatable illnesses in the richest country in the world?

    We’ll see.

  58. Clearly the designers of that survey were blind to the distinction between a “program” such as a 529 fund that allows one to invest (i.e. take a personal risk) his or her own money and have the capital gains exempted from taxation or receiving disbursal of payments from a fund into which one pays their entire working career such as Social Security or Medicare and a “program” that takes money earned by one taxpayer and gives it to another person based on a set of qualifications established by the the government such as EITC, Foodstamps, subsidized housing, etc. It betrays the notion of the questioner that the government owns everything and we serfs are merely allowed to enjoy a portion of the fruits of our labor that the Mandarins in the Capitol deem sufficient to prevent a rebellion.

    1. The problem with tying benefits to investments under the control of the beneficiary is that it means the greatest winners will be those who invest well. Why should an irrelevant (and frankly somewhat sleazy) skill at gambling be so rewarded? If benefits ought to be unequal (which I’m not sure they should be), surely the greater rewardees ought to be the great artists, authors, and scientists who make society worth living in.

    2. Exactly this. The government has no money. The only money it has is the money we give it. Thus, there is a huge difference between giving the government less of one’s money (tax deductions), getting paid for working for the government (GI Bill, etc), and getting money from the government that someone else first gave it. Merely seeing some benefits in return for the money one pays (whether those benefits are a fire department, a public university education for one’s kids, or social security) also cannot be classed as a social program any more than buying a hamburger from McDonald’s could be.

  59. I doubt our economy and country could survive without government spending. Spend some time thinking how far reaching subsidies are. Everything you interact with is subsidised by the government. Everything. Your standard of living is subsidised. You can’t escape it. To deny it imperils our nation.

  60. These are all social programs. A program that subsidizes your purchase of a home (the home mortgage interest deduction) is no less a social program than one that subsidizes your purchase of food (food stamps); or, for that matter, another program that subsidizes your purchase of a home (housing vouchers). As noted above, in budgetary terms, which are relatively objective, there is no difference between the two.

    From what I read, the arguments against this are 1) “I pay more in taxes, so I deserve any money the government allows me to keep,” (I’m too rich to be called a leech / user of a social program) and 2) “I worked hard for less than I thought I deserved, so I deserve any money the government gives to me” (I’m too hardworking to be called a leech / user of a social program).

    Neither really work. In the first case, those of us who are rich and don’t do what the government wants effectively pay higher taxes to support those of us who are rich and do (guess who’s a leech there), and in the second case, those of us who worked hard but don’t do what the government wants effectively see our compensation go to those of us who worked hard and do (guess who’s a leech here).

  61. No the mortgage deduction is a government policy. The government has made an affirmative decision to reward an individual for making a housing purchase. It is a handout that you did nothing to earn. Fundamentally, it’s no different than getting a handout for buying a cheeseburger or any other commodity. People whine about “welfare queens” getting money for extra kids, but never once think twice about getting a second deduction for simply procreating.

    That you’re still paying out more than you get back is immaterial. You’re receiving a benefit for doing nothing more than living.

  62. Look: it’s really simple.

    If I benefit from it, or people I know benefit from it- I can see the value, and it isn’t a social program. It’s a rational earned investment. If the people that benefit from it are sufficiently outside my social circle, or circles I aspire to join, then I can comfortably imagine them as conforming to negative stereotypes, and therefore any aid they get is from a social program.

    What’s so hard to understand? If I benefit, it’s good. If I don’t, it’s bad.

    Poor people are clearly hogging all the money.

  63. Imagine all tax deductions and credits were eliminated.

    Now if someone proposed that the government sent homeowners a check for 25% of the interest they paid, would that be considered a social program? Now consider this, the more expensive the house is, the more interest they’ll pay, and the more money they’ll get back.

    Wouldn’t you be angry that the rich get paid more to live in a more expensive house???? People who are renting get nothing! Hmm. Doesn’t sound so fair to me.

  64. Upon further reflection isn’t government itself a social program? Things like creating a more perfect union, establishing domestic tranquility, providing the general welfare (ahem) are tasks we’ve entrusted to the government, because we could not or would not otherwise handle them ourselves. And furthermore no one would do them for free, but we have deemed these things as being so important, that we’ll pay for them via taxes, collection of which is backed up with the threat of physical violence.

    Having these things, or not having them, is a moral decision, e.g. we want to provide for the common defense because we think it would make for a better society. One might question the legislation of morality, or morality and the law, etc., but really everything the government does, or doesn’t, do has a moral decision behind it. If the government provides food stamps then that is some person’s or persons’ moral decision. Conversely if we think that people can fend for themselves, or should fend for themselves, and that we should leave the government out of buttering bread, then that too is some person’s or persons’ moral decision. In either case the government is a social program. Same as if we were to decide that a landlord’s right to trample his serfs while he hunts endangered apes on his own property is more important than the government stepping in to protect the trampled, who probably have it coming.

    Thus, unless one is a complete anarchist, the flavor of government boils down to which moral decisions, or for that matter immoral decisions, are of sufficient importance that we delegate the government to back it up with penalties, weapons, etc. What’s left is to argue over what that government should look like and we can argue and/or bullshit and jive each other all day and… well, shucks, here we are, a-hyukka-hyuck-hyuck!

    This felt like some kind of epiphany when I started but it’s entirely conceivable that I’ve missed the whole point…

  65. One person has a mortgage, the other rents. They make the same income but pay different tax amounts. That isn’t a social program? It isn’t a benefit for mortgage holders

    The big piece of logic missing here is the notion that “all the money I make is mine and nobody is entitled to any of it”. But you didn’t make that money on your own. Nobody does.

    You needed public roads, you needed people who can read and write thanks to public education. You need the relative safety and orderliness that comes from having police and courts and a system that isn’t utterly corrupt, as it is in many very low tax places. Reliable electricity, clean water, safe food, etc.

    So you had help from society. You think you can make that money “all on your own”, move to Somalia and don’t pay US taxes. Everyone who makes money in this society did so with help from society’s resources. The only question is what’s a fair distribution of the costs.

    Now if you made *more* money, you should pay *more* taxes. That’s how our system is supposed to work. In the 1950s, corporations paid 4.5% of GDP in taxes. Today, its less than 2%. Similar shift in tax burdern on high earners.

    So all of those people saying “we’re taxed enough! too much!” If you’re the middle class, that’s because the tax burden has been shifted from investors (by cutting capital gains), from the wealthy, and from corporations, on to you.

    The answer is not to cut the very small part of the budget that helps the poor, or the part that invests in the future (Dept of Energy, education, etc). Its to make the investor class pay their fair share.

  66. My taxes paid for the EPA to keep my air clean. So breathing air is a social program right?

  67. The difference between the above programs and road building is that the above programs are money given to the expected beneficiary. Road building does not exist for the benefit of the road builders.

    The only difference between an R&D tax break and a grant from the government to do R&D is a semantic one. It is easier to give money to a corporation if you call it a tax break than if you call it a spade.

  68. Look, this is really simple:

    Jack and Jill both work at MicroCon, they each make 100K/year. They live in the same neighborhood, drive on the same roads, use the same police/fire services, visit the same national parks. Many of these things are funded by their tax dollars, they utilize them to the same degree.

    Jack rents an apartment next door to Jill’s condo.

    Every year Jill pays substantially less taxes than Jack, claiming her mortgage interest deduction. We (the democratically elected government) decided to subsidize Jill’s home purchase because we believe home ownership makes a more stable society.

    Jill has more money in her pocket than Jack, purely because of a gov’t decision based on social considerations. Every year Jack and Jill can argue to their representatives that the base tax rate is too high, or too low, and that will never change the fact that Jill pays less. Jack might as well have handed the extra money he pays straight to Jill, there is no difference. The inequality between Jack and Jill’s tax bill is a govt social program.

    1. ‘Every year Jill pays substantially less taxes than Jack, claiming her mortgage interest deduction. We (the democratically elected government) decided to subsidize Jill’s home purchase because we believe home ownership makes a more stable society.

      Jill has more money in her pocket than Jack, purely because of a gov’t decision based on social considerations. Every year Jack and Jill can argue to their representatives that the base tax rate is too high, or too low, and that will never change the fact that Jill pays less. Jack might as well have handed the extra money he pays straight to Jill, there is no difference. The inequality between Jack and Jill’s tax bill is a govt social program.’

      Except that you forget the portion of tax saved by Jacks landlord. I see this all the time from whiny poor renters complaining about whatever deduction home owners get. They simply like to ignore reality and whine about how hard renters life is. Just because you don’t see a deduction doesn’t mean your situation isn’t receiving some type of advantage from the government.

      In my area the person that owns Jacks apartment received the tax deduction on the mortgage, but also can claim any and all expenses related to the property as a reduction of income. Which allows the rent to be less than the equivalent mortgage and maintenance paid by Jill, who only can use the mortgage interest deduction. (Actually, where I live there is no mortgage interest deduction unless it’s an an investment property… meaning you don’t live there and rent it to someone else).

      TL;DR version – Any and all rent paid in excess by Jack should, almost always, be taken up with Jacks landlord and not the government.

  69. It was a shame this discussion never got off the ground. As a couple of people said, it’s strange people are so touchy about the definition of “social program”, but that visceral dislike of government is probably why so many respondents answered “no” to the programs where there’s no possible ambiguity.

    Social programs are not roads or air or whatever. They’re actual programs, individual systems legislated into existence that have a name, a budget, an office, someone in charge, “under which action may be taken toward a goal” to quote the dictionary.

    Some people may disagree with the definition, but the researcher did not invent it. It’s pretty standard. If you put “EITC program” into Google you will get plenty of government hits.

    If the government raised everyone’s tax rate to the same amount, then gave you back a subsidy for your home or family or school, all that would change is that the system would be less efficient.

    “The government has no money. The only money it has is the money we give it.”

    You have no money. The only money you have is payments from other sources.

    (Possible response) “But I have a right to that money.”

    The Founding Fathers were the experts on rights, and they said government was needed to protect those of others. A right implies a duty on the part of someone else. And how much money do you have a right to for X amount of labor, anyway?

    (Possible response) “The market decides.”

    But the market is completely distorted by government. If you believe you’d be earning more in a free-market paradise, I guess we must part ways. My guess is that without government you’d probably be a serf under King George X.

  70. The discussion seems to have become a discussion of which governmental policies can properly be called “social programs” – apparently, that particular designation carries some kind of moral stain upon it ( and that latter perception arises because…?)

    Could the Governmental rationing of goods and services (as we have done from time to time in the past, although not recently) also be counted as a “social program”?
    Why not? It certainly seems to one to me. And how about hanging back, and letting things get rationed purely by prices as set by those who have the power to set them? What about if sellers collude to set prices? Is the enforcement of anti-competition laws a “social program” too? Why or why not?

    How about selective enforcement of anti-competiton laws? That a social program?

    Or the grant of monopolies, like copyrights, and their enforcement? Are those “social programs” too?

    And what of war itself?
    No? Why not?

    EVERYTHING the Government does, or even consciously does NOT do, in those situations where it otherwise could act, could with some truth be called in some sense a “social program”: as all that concerns Governance, also concerns our society.

    And thus, is always open to discussion, in our free and democratic societies.

  71. I think it’s interesting how far some people will go to deny the large degree of mutual indebtedness necessary for the functioning of society. It’s tempting to pathologize those people and/or the society that produces them. But we at least should consider the etiology. What leads to such a strong desire for radical disaffiliation? Why so much mutual suspicion and loathing?

  72. drunken_orangetree #11 “‘the third-generation on the dole.’ Do you have any evidence that a specific American family has been on the dole for three generations?”
    Sarah Palin’s kids have kids.

    davegroff #19 “…but then again, there’s a cohort of conservatives who claim to be against using the tax system for promoting social aims (other than simply raising revenue).”
    They aren’t. Theirs just happens to be different than the liberal one, with different social aims.

    BaylorRugby #38 “Sales taxes are a much better method of taxation because it encourages capital formation and discourages blind consumerism and debt accumulation.”
    So a more regressive taxation is better because it encourages those who don’t have enough to buy capital to get the thing they can’t afford?

    andrei.timoshenko #65 “To be perfectly fair, I think that there is a valid, objective distinction to be made between receiving from the government MORE than you contribute in taxes and receiving from the government LESS than you contribute in taxes. For better or worse, I think a lot of people are much more opposed to the former than to the latter.”
    Well, I consider paying more than I get back a tax. In exchange, I never have to say “The peasants are revolting”.

    Antinous / Moderator #70 “That’s exactly the sort of program that would be described as Stalinist if it were suggested by President Obama.”
    To be fair, they say that about whatever he does anyway. Or what they think he does. Or what he does in their nightmares.(*1)

    *1. Their sexy, sexy nightmares.(*2)
    *2. I’ve said too much.

    1. I am not saying that social programs are bad. In fact, I agree that social programs are good. What I am saying is that a whole bunch of the people listed as being on social programs (while believing that they are not) are more correct in their beliefs (and their definitions) than the author of the study is in hers.

      “I’m not on a social program, so screw the poor” is a terrible attitude to take. And this is no less true if the first part of the statement is accurate.

  73. The comments here are illuminating as to why so many people don’t believe they are beneficiaries of social programs. What has happened is 1) “social program” has become a dirty word to a lot of people, and 2) people believe that there is a class (caste?) of people who receive government handouts (a.k.a. “social programs”) but that don’t deserve them.

    Hence, one might think they deserve social security and unemployment insurance, but that someone on welfare doesn’t. The implicit assumption is that people on welfare (and their children) never pay into the tax system at other times in their lives.

    For the record, I believe this assumption is wrong, but I don’t have a study in mind that proves my hypothesis either way…

    1. I think you hit the essence here. The posting is a political one meant to slap conservatives and Tea Partiers with semantics. Essentially, expanding the term ‘social program beneficiary’ to include the aforementioned groups as recipients of ‘social programs.’ The aim is simple. Find a way to make the term ‘deadbeat’ applicable to everyone in the US, so that ‘deadbeat’ cannot be used exclusively to describe the underclass. The post has no purpose beyond this.

  74. Once again showing that surveys, results, and reports- are only as good as the people conducting them.

  75. Home mortgage intrest deduction. Who does it benefit? There are a lot of comments here busy attacking the home owner. Who do the homeowner and the government subsidy for interest get paid to? Hmmm? How about those subsidised student loans and their interest? I’m still waiting…

    If you guessed the monied investor who loaned the money to buy the house and education you are correct! Can we please stop attacking our middle class brethern and start looking at the real culprits here?

  76. I’ll join in the crowd griping about the list:

    The worst offender on it is the veteran’s benefits/GI bill. These are *NOT* social programs but rather deferred compensation for military employees.

    The second worst on the list is unemployment benefits. They’re government administered but other than in the recent economic mess they are funded by the employees/employers. They are a form of insurance.

    I also consider the deductions/credits to be very iffy. They’re just lowering taxes.

  77. Aren’t tax deductions different than credits in that it can reduce my taxes to 0 but it doesn’t mean that I get money from the government? That refund is my money to start with…

  78. Home mortgage Interest Deduction? A Government Social Program? If I didn’t have income taxes, I wouldn’t need the deduction. I’m using it to pay less.
    Now if you had said “FHA Insured Loan”, I would say “yes”.

    1. “If I didn’t have income taxes, I wouldn’t need the deduction.”

      If you didn’t have income taxes, you wouldn’t have a road to get to your house, nor electricity to light it, nor plumbing to take your sewage away. In other words, you wouldn’t have a house, unless you, and your fellow citizens, were all paying income taxes.

      And please check out anon’s point at #97 above.

      1. #97 makes a false comparison of ‘money left over.’ The assertion ignores things like property taxes (+ local bonds) that are levied against the property-owner vs the apartment-renter. The Fed may giveth but the assessor taketh away. Consequently, Renter Jack may be the one with more ready cash, while Owner Jill has more long-term equity – in a pleasegod pleasegod good real estate market.

        1. The renter is also paying property taxes. The landlord simply includes it in the rent.

          1. Ok, I see. To follow your logic, if the landlord’s property tax is passed on to the renter, then so is the landlord’s mortgage deduction allowance. And so, I imagine, are all the other expenses of the landlord’s ownership: the cost of providing the renter’s appliances, the property, theft and fire insurance, maintenance, etc. So there really is no difference between the cost of renting and the cost of owning. #97s comparison is about the difference. Your defense of it says there is no difference.

          2. “To follow your logic, if the landlord’s property tax is passed on to the renter, then so is the landlord’s mortgage deduction allowance.”


            And to answer the rest of your point: you’re absolutely right that “there really is no difference between the cost of renting and the cost of owning”, except that the owner gets a mortgage interest deduction–from the government–and the renter doesn’t. Which is what #97 pointed out.

          3. Why? Why not? This is all made-up crap anyway. #97’s comparison, yours, mine. What if the landlord owns the bldg and pays no mortgage? Renting and owning each have their own burdens and benefits. #97 made up a simplistic, bogus comparison to defend a list created by Professor Mettler to do what I stated @ #115. Create a liberal RPG to fight a conservative Apache. That’s fair; it’s politics. Regardless, enjoyable to discuss with you.

  79. The GI BIll is not a social welfare program. It is an employment incentive guaranteed in my contract.

    1. And why was it in your contract in the first place? Because it is a social welfare program!

      Face it, just because you were in the military doesn’t put you above getting a handout.

  80. I wonder if people opposed to taxation and “government social programs” drive on highways that are full of potholes and complain about how bumpy their ride is, or visit the public library and complain that there are no new books and the hours have been reduced.

  81. Wow. Denial much, folks? Without our government, the U.S. would be in pretty rough shape pretty quickly. As someone who benefited from AFDC and free lunches as a kid raised by a single mom, I get incensed pretty quickly when my conservative friends start talking about welfare moms, etc. Now to print that .pdf so I can absorb it.

  82. I am surprised at the general quality of this discussion, tho there has been insufficient recognition of the extent to which many of the social programs listed and discussed have enormous side benefits for major corporations. e.g. student loans and mortgage interest deductions benefit the financial industry far beyond anything paid out for food stamps or disability. in fact the program of food stamps has survived the Reagan Era assault because it profoundly subsidized not just agribusiness but the distribution system (safeway etc) as well and they have fought to preserve it. (it is worth noting that if you check pricing at any major food seller in any major metro area you will find prices are higher in areas where food stamps will be used extensively.) the student loan program has been a windfall for both private universities and the financial sector, both of which get their money up front, whether the student graduates and finds a job or not. it is worth remembering that the amounts paid out for such social projects as the interstate highway system dwarf anything spent on welfare for the poor, especially when you consider where the highways were routed, at whose expense, and at whose profit. as for Medicare, the AMA and the hospitals opposed these programs because they were seen as a ceiling to their profits, but once they made sure they became a floor, the survival of Medicare was assured. “conservatives” have fallen victims to their own rhetoric and want to believe that the government only benefits single black women with children, but the truth is that big government is the best friend big business ever had and that we’re all connected and cannot survive without the mutual support that society affords, period.

  83. A deduction and a tax credit are two different things, people. A deduction reduces your taxable wages. A credit does not, but it does lower your overall tax bill. Essentially, a credit takes money from someone who is paying into the IRS and applies that money as savings directly to you, the person taking the credit. It’s absolutely a redistribution of wealth.

  84. there is a difference between tax credits and tax deductions. the first is a subsidy, the second is a privilege. both are government programs with profound social consequences.

  85. The government gets a return on its tax-break investment in home ownership: elders who are less poor and less dependent on government programs while alive, and who leave estates that will repay Medicaid for their nursing home care after they’re gone.

  86. Sadly, too many of the critical comments here seem to equate social programs with “taking away my hard-earned money and giving it to some lazy undeserving dolt.” This is a conservative straw man argument that doesn’t come close to describing either the logic behind why a social program may be desirable or the recipients of such program benefits.

  87. By this logic, every person paying less than the highest tax rate is on a social program.

  88. How can all these people be so stupid, and not realize they are on a “social program”. Obviously, either everyone surveyed doesn’t know what that means, or the professor doesn’t.


    A man was driving down the road when his phone rang. When he answered it, his wife warned hom, , ‘Be careful dear, the news just that there’s a man driving the wrong way down your section of the the interstate!

    ‘One of them?’ he replied. ‘There’s hundreds of them!!!

  89. Drive on a road? Breath air? Drink water? Existed within a country? Odds are you have gotten some sort of “social” program.

    Do you have police, fire, hospitals, schools in your community? Does your country have some sort of armed forces to keep away the banditry?

    I guess it really comes down to what your definition of “social” service is. Government by it’s (or at least mine) definition is a SOCIAL construct, for the benefit of all (presumably).

    I think most people that think they do not use social services are being close minded, and are deluding themselves.

    I get it, people don’t like taxes. News flash, I doubt people liked taxes any better the first time they were introduced. Some Alpha Male caveman guy said “Oook Oook, pay me rock!” and caveman two was all like “WTF?”. Bottom line is “stuff” isn’t free, shut up and pay your fair share.

    Now if you want to talk about tax equality, that’s a whole different ball game. The wealthiest seem to find ways not to pay.

  90. Tax breaks very much are social programs. This becomes more obvious once you consider that if you get enough tax breaks, you can actually get a tax refund greater than all of your withheld income, i.e. the government is just handing you money.

    Anyway, as we see in this chart, people also don’t realize that blatantly subsidized programs like student loans and handouts like Pell grants are government programs.

  91. Yes. The problem is not whether you’ve used services. The problem is the (very variable) point at which the services become services for “us” and services for “them.”

  92. great discussion that shows the extent to which “program with any social goal” has become conflated for so many with “welfare.”

    “Why Americans Hate Welfare” by Martin Gilens has really helped clarify for me the historical process behind this commonly-held belief and how so many ideas about programs for the social welfare can be reduced to whether the recipient is perceived to be “deserving” or “undeserving”.

  93. I can admit I have used some these services in the past. I at one time was on welfare but I also held down 3 jobs at the same time.

    During the time I received “welfare” I did not get to receive “my child support” besides the $50 disregard each month. My child support orders were in the amount of $611 and $423 but I couldn’t count on them paying each month consistently. However, any and all welfare that was collected by me was in turn paid back out of my child support collected by the Child Support Division.

    While I was receiving aid I went back back to school to become a paralegal. I took out federal student loans and I was granted the Pell Grant. My last semester I was also given the BOGG. Had I had chosen to stay in school I could have used those grants for another 3.5 years to pay my way to a University. Since I had accomplished what I had set out to accomplish I gave them back for someone else to use. Although, I was informed I could hold on to them to use at a later time if I was planning on returning to school.

    While I was going to school and working I received subsidized child care and thank God I did otherwise I would not have been able to succeed and be where I am today.

    People are so quick to judge a person if they know they are receiving any kind of aid, but in reality if it weren’t for those “government social programs” I would still be working 3 or 4 jobs to try and make ends meet. I would still be living in a house that flooded every time it rained. I would still have to expose my kids to the mold that was growing on the walls from them being saturated with rain water. My kids would surely not be getting the proper nutrition they need since food stamps only gave me $140 for the whole month.

    Today I can hold my head high. I know I am not one of those that took advantage of the system. Yes, I used the system to my advantage and used the programs that were offered out there in order to give my kids a better life that I would not have been able to do otherwise.

    Today the only “social program” I receive on this list is the child and dependent care tax credit and you can bet your bottom dollar I am going to use every tax break I can get cause I don’t qualify for ANYTHING anymore. But I am ok with that.

  94. the only thing we should take from this is that it’s hard to *avoid* social programs. most people could get along just fine without them. in some cases people are forced to use them when they otherwise would not.

    we also need to note that you can’t call something a “social program” and think it’s the same as an entitlement program. social security is an entitlement and was never intended for the large audience it now serves. it is over half the non-military expenditure per year in our federal budget. don’t think for a second we can keep it up much longer.

    the chart is hilarious. “Home mortgage interest deduction.” That’s not a social program, it’s part of tax law. And it keeps people buying homes who actually run a cost-benefit analysis that includes *all* of the benefits of owning a home.

    “Student loans”, another joke. All student loans have done at a high level is make college temporarily cheaper for kids who then have insane amounts of debt to pay back. Colleges know the kids can get their hands on easy money so they grow and accept more applicants, watering down the entire idea of higher education in the process. College loans for just anyone is a horrible idea and the program should be shrunk down to nothing; let the private sector reward people who have earned their spot at a good university borrow money if they need to.

    1. it is over half the non-military expenditure per year in our federal budget. don’t think for a second we can keep it up much longer.

      Because where would we ever get funding for it, right? There is a lot of obvious being missed putting these two sentences together.

  95. Here’s my question: How can 25-27% of the people in this study have received food stamps, welfare or govt housing and not realize it was a government program? I can see people who received student loans and GI Bill not realizing it was considered a social program with the perception they didn’t get anything for free. But, how can you receive free food and a check from the government and still believe you’ve never used a social program?

    As for me, I have received student loans and even education grants. And personally, I think the government should give those to anyone who wants an education, because the more educated you are, the less likely you are to need other assistance down the road.

  96. The idea that *not* getting taxed is somehow a government program is akin to saying that not being put to death by lethal injection is a government program.

    1. How is having your taxes reduced based upon an amount which you pay in interest on monies lent for your purchase of housing not a Government subsidy (ie Governmental encouragement) to money-lenders?

      Here in Canada, mortgage interest payments are NOT tax-deductible in any way for home-owners: instead, we (that is, our Government) subsidizes our home owners (and that is indeed the proper and accurate phrase to use in this context) by exempting them from having to pay any taxes on any gain in price received when they sell their residence.

      Not surprisingly, many Canadians like being mortgage-free!

      1. It is to be noted that in the usual course, one pays taxes upon one’s gains as a result of trade or employment.

        Thus, not having to pay that usual tax, for a specific class of good or service, is most definitely a “subsidy” for that class of good or service.

        That there is no tax levied or payable, means that therefore there can be no question of Government subsidy or favour? Clearly false.

        The absence of any taxes due can be the most telling marker of Governmental favour and interference in markets!

  97. I believe there is a problem of definitions here. Politicians want to call these social programs, in that the programs are supposed to help society. But what most of them really are is a collection of government control programs.

    Just look at the tax code. Putting aside the punishing of success with progressive taxes, if you earn $40K your tax is a huge chunk of change 25%, or $10K out of $40K. You can reduce this $10K by obeying the government’s socialized tax loopholes. It’s much like the Progressive Insurance commercial: Buy a home, discount; Have some children; discount, etc. Many, mostly lower income levels pay no income taxes at all. In fact if they follow the edicts of the federal government, they will receive a bonus (EIC).

    By jumping through government’s hoops like trained monkeys, keeping your earnings low, and obeying the benevolent government’s rules, you can get bonuses (housing, food, etc.).

    This is called control. Control over your life and your decisions: a loss of personal liberty.

    Then, some of the items on the list are not social programs at all, unless you believe that contracts between employers and employees are social programs. I’m speaking of the GI Bill of course. The GI Bill is and was part of the contract for military service. You do your time and you are eligible for help with college and other educational opportunities. I’m still unsure about the breakout of the GI Bill in the list. First it says veterans programs, except the GI Bill. But then it is listed as a separate social program.

    Your politicians use the tax code and other social programs to force you to pay for their re-election by way of convincing you that they are there to help you. I’d say, not so much.

  98. The problem is that there is no option to “opt out”. I admit that I have benefitted from many of these “social programs” in the same way that I benefit from driving on public roads. But just because there is a monopoly which everyone (or at least many) use, does not mean that monopoly is the best way to handle the need. Many programs and services that government provide can be privatized and allowed to operate competitively and as can be observed in other areas of the economy, provide far more for far less money.

    Also, many of these programs are only popular because of their existence. For example, students would likely not need to get federal aid for school, if the government did not already subsidize higher education to such a ridiculous degree or provide many with education for free or reduced costs. The increased demand from the students getting the free ride drive up the costs of education overall, not only directly by filling seats in classes they would normally not be able to sit in, but also by flooding the market with overly-educated individuals (creating even more demand for education by individuals wanting to compete). To work in the software development industry twenty years ago, you did not NEED to have a four-year degree. These days, new software engineers almost have to have a postgraduate degree to even think about getting a job.

    The same thing happens with farm subsidies and food stamps. It can be seen all over, in everything that government touches. Those dollars spent on social programs are diluted through bureaucracy rather than just left in the hands of the public where they can be used at face value to help people in need.

  99. Tax expenditures are government programs.

    No matter where you set the tax rate, if you allow one group (say, homeowners) to pay fewer taxes for owning homes, you get less revenue and encourage homeownership. This has the same effect as taxing everyone equally and using the extra revenue to cut homeowners a check. You’re still using revenue to promote certain behavior, for better or worse. From a budgetary and a policy standpoint, then, a tax break is the same a program.

    (Yes, if you remove a tax break and lower the overall rate, the effect goes away. That doesn’t make it not exist when the tax break is in place.)

    Furthermore, these programs encourage things like education, family stability, making work pay, retirement security, and homeownership. These are all traditional aims of social policy, so these are properly characterized as social programs.

    (So, saying that the money was yours to begin with might be meaningful on a personal level, but it has nothing to do with whether tax breaks function as social programs.)

    Absolutely, there are differences between safety net programs such as food stamps and middle-class security programs such as these. We should talk about those differences, and debate how effective these programs are. But they are both still social programs – using the government to advance social goals.

  100. I’m 30 years old and make a decent living. I’ve not once been able to qualify for anything execpt for the standard deduction. I am not married. I do not have kids. I do not own a home. All of these are choices I should be allowed to make. I pay a lot of federal income tax. A lot. As much as is possible for my income level.

    I have a problem with those of you suggesting that using tax breaks that allows you to pay less of a share of the governmental burden than me is not a social program. While maybe it is beneficial to society to help with loan interest, and having children, and being married, it sure as hell is a social program.

    If you don’t want to be part of a social program, argue to end the tax brakes and lower the overall tax rate so all of us are paying the same share according to our income level instead of getting breaks for optional life choices.

  101. @Aron … im fully with you, only bit is the Federal Reserve Bank is a privately held company not a governmental body… before people troll me just google it up first :)

  102. America’s changing. The problems now being faced are not cyclical but structural. This time it really is different. It’s OK for Fox ‘News’ presenters to talk down Obama’s ‘socialisation of America’. They are on multi-million dollar media contracts. Same with Rush Limbaugh with his 14 million dollar Manhattan penthouse who likes to come across as a regular man of the people.

    Those who are anti ‘socialist care’ will change your minds when the Republicans re-take the White house and privatise anything that moves. Cell phone camera footage has shown victorious Republicans who ‘shellaced’ Obama last year being verbally abused by those who voted for them when they found out they intended to privatise Medicare/Medicaid. They basically never told the electorate that what their true intentions were, preferring to pray on the Obama-hatred. It worked!

    (English spellings used!)

  103. The home mortgage interest deduction certainly is a social program — a gift from the government to encourage and enable home ownership. People who get the deduction don’t get a cut in any services they get from the government (national security, roads, safe drinking water, etc). Guaranteed student loans are also a social program, as many individuals who receive them would not be given loans from the private market in order to attend college.

  104. We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general —

    Oops, I guess we gotta rewrite the Constitution. After all, “welfare” is something only liberals care about.

  105. I read most of the comments, and I just have a few clarifications to make:
    Student loans. There are two types of government student loans. In one, the government PAYS your interest payments until your graduate. And in both of them, the government basically ‘co-signs’ your loan, which actually comes from the private sector, and therefor if you (for example) die with no next-of-kin, the government gets to eat the loan.

    Tax CREDITS are government assistance. You can’t argue against fact, so stop trying.

    I do have a question, however. If the home mortgage interest deduction is meant to encourage home ownership, what is welfare meant to encourage?

  106. The fact that the listed programs are not equal does not discredit the survey results. If any Medicare or food stamp recipient does not know the money comes through government by way of taxation, then we are failing to properly educate the populace.

  107. I contributed to Social Security and my employer did too because we were forced to by the federal legislature. It totaled 15% of income before taxes. If an average earnings was only 30K over our working life, that’s close to $220,500. Calculating the future value of $4,500 per year (mine & my employer’s contribution) at a simple 5% (less than what the govt. pays on the money that it borrows), after 49 years of working we would have $892,919.98. If I took out only 3% per year, I would receive $26,787.60 per year and it would last better than 30 years, and that’s with no interest paid on that final amount on deposit! If I bought an annuity and it paid 4% per year, I’d have a lifetime income of $2,976.40 per month. The folks in Washington have pulled off a bigger Ponzi scheme than Bernie Madhoff ever did. Do not continue such chicanery! Fully fund my retirement based on it being an invested trust fund, or give us the opportunity to take control of our own retirement.

    Entitlement my foot, I paid cash for my social security insurance! Just because they borrowed the money and did not return it with interest, doesn’t make my benefits some kind of charity or handout!

    Congressional benefits include free healthcare, outrageous retirement packages, 67 paid holidays, three weeks paid vacation, unlimited paid sick days, all for life even if they worked only 2 years, now that’s welfare, and they have the nerve to call my retirement entitlements!

    What is wrong here? WAKE UP AMERICA!

    Our retired seniors are living on a ‘fixed income,’ ($1100 a month on average and no COLA for 3 years) receive no aid, nor do they get any breaks, while federal and state legislatures look at ways to reduce what benefits we do get. On top of that, they look at ways to increase revenue from speed traps, to toll roads, to renter fees, to sales tax increases on more and more items, to user fees, permits, licenses, privilege to work permits, to the point of making us sick of those elected representatives!

    They call Social Security and Medicare an entitlement, even though most of us have been paying for it all our working lives. Now when it’s time for us to collect, the government is running out of money. Why did the government borrow from it in the first place and how could we have allowed it to happen?

    AMERICA…a country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed hungry, elderly going without ‘needed’ meds, and mentally ill without treatment, etc., etc. YET…they have a ‘Benefit’ for the people of all over the world in the billions of dollars. Imagine what a benefit it would be if the ‘GOVERNMENT’ gave the ‘U.S.’ the same support they give to other countries.

    Imagine what it would be like if there were term limitations so our elected representatives would not spend all their time positioning for the next election so they can maintain their undeclared and unconstitutional royalty positions.

    If you think you want real change, then roll up your sleeves, prop yourself up in your wheel chair, spend ten minutes for every hour of television entertainment per day, and stop the carnage on our own people. It is time for honest, dedicated, and sincere people to be elected to our legislatures who will vote for term limitations and quite spending our taxes on special interests that get them re-elected!

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