Suzanne Mettler

Recent Articles

Revealing the Submerged State

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...

Redistributing Upwards

Most people think of social welfare policies as ones that aim to help people with low or moderate incomes, but the largest entitlements in what I call the Submerged State conglomeration of policies channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations—benefit especially high income households. The three submerged policies that are most costly to the United States are the tax subsidies for employer-provided health and retirement benefits and the home mortgage interest deduction. Each of these three policies favors more affluent Americans, as seen in the figure below. In 2004, families with incomes of $100,000 or above—the top 15 percent of the income distribution—claimed 69 percent of the benefits of the home mortgage interest deduction, and 55 and 30 percent of the tax benefits associated with employer-provided retirement benefits and health benefits, respectively. On the rare occasions when policymakers discuss these policies, they usually imply that they help middle...

Invisibility and policy design

One of the themes of my new book, T he Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy , is that Americans are largely unaware of many public policies, even if they benefit from them themselves. This was indicated, for instance, by a table from my earlier work that was discussed on the Monkey Cage last winter and reproduced on other blogs; in an article that appeared in Washington Monthly this past summer ; and in the introduction to my book that appeared on Salon last weekend. In reading the comments, I’ve noticed that some readers interpret me to be implying that people are stupid or ignorant. That is not my argument and the data do not support that conclusion. Rather, I am arguing that Americans’ awareness of social welfare policies is influenced primarily by the design and delivery of such policies. I draw on Paul Pierson’s conceptual approach to policy feedback, specifically his suggestion that policies must be visible and traceable to government...