Revealing the Submerged State

by
Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University
November 7, 2011

Suzanne MettlerSuzanne Mettler teaches American politics and policy at Cornell University. In 2007, she received a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation to examine how changes in the form and generosity of public provision have influenced attitudes toward government and political participation. She discusses her findings in a series of blog posts for the political science blog The Monkey Cage, which we will cross-post here. This is her third post; her previous entries are available here and here.

The hidden quality of social welfare benefits in the tax code means that many people are largely unaware of them, and have no idea of their overall impact. How could these policies of the submerged state be revealed, and what difference would it make? Matt Guardino and I created a web-based experiment to test the impact of providing people with small amounts of basic information about such policies. We found that it had two basic effects: (1) people who expressed no opinion on such policies in the absence of information became significantly more likely to do so after receiving information; (2) after the provision of information, people adopted views that made sense given their political values and their interests, as defined by income. Overall, opposition grew to the policies that aid predominantly high income people, while support grew for policies that aid low income people.

One part of the study, for example, first asked people whether they support or oppose the Home Mortgage Income Deduction. Then subjects were distracted by being asked some questions about sports and entertainment. Next, they received an information treatment consisting of the following statement and graph:

Now here is some information about the federal Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. This policy is a tax benefit for homeowners. It allows them to reduce the amount they pay in income taxes based on the amount they pay in interest on their home mortgages. The people who benefit most from this policy are those who have the highest incomes. In 2005, a large majority of the benefits went to people who lived in households that made $100,000 or more that year.

The figure below shows how people’s views changed, pre- and post-treatment. Among those with low and moderate incomes, support dropped off and opposition grew. This change occurred just on the basis of this small intervention of information. This, and the other results, suggests that if the effects of the submerged state were made more apparent through sustained and regular communication, people would have different opinions than they do presently.

In addition, the existence and effects of now-hidden policies could be made more apparent to Americans through numerous changes in policy design and delivery. I discuss these in some detail in The Submerged State. Revealing the submerged state can help citizens understand government’s role in society, enabling them to form meaningful opinions about policies and to engage in action to express their views. In the context of contemporary governance, such efforts are essential to reinvigorating democracy.

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