MAKE IT OBVIOUS

Mitt Romney recently proposed a plan for child care benefits that received a ton of positive attention – the quest for Good Republicans never rests – for being even more generous than the one Biden proposed. That's true only by some measures, and depending on which part of the benefit you decide is most important the Biden plan could be superior.

As is always the case with these things, Romney's proposal came with some pretty substantial fine print. The apparently generous plan would come at the expense of eliminating TANF and other direct-assistance programs aimed at the poor. This is a similar problem to Andrew Yang's early UBI proposals, which seemed like a great cash benefit until you realized it would replace, not be added to, almost every other social welfare program. So you're likely to be losing money overall. These details, even when they're not enormously complex, are hard for people to process. People like simple programs that are easy to understand.

In my view there is one and only one way in which the Romney plan is better, but it's crucial: he proposes administering the program through the Social Security Administration, whereas Biden's proposal, as is typical, would be through the IRS.

This has been an enormous problem for Democrats, I think, since the 1980s: all social and public policy must go through the tax code. There is a tactical reason for doing it that way, since it allows social policy to be framed as "tax cuts," and everybody likes tax cuts. Or at least things are harder for conservatives to attack if it can be framed as "tax relief for our hardest working blah blah blah."

Here's the problem, though: very few people are attentive enough to really grasp that a policy represents the government handing them a big pile of money when it happens via the annual filing of tax returns. This means that millions of people benefit from social welfare programs without realizing that they are benefitting from social welfare programs. How many homeowners really deduct their mortgage interest and property taxes from their income – saving themselves hundreds or thousands of dollars in the process – and think, "Wow, the United States Treasury just gave me ($500, $1000, whatever)?"

Nobody does. That is why for decades middle-class subsidies such as that have not been perceived as handouts, which they are. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the same; it provides tons of assistance to millions of people, none of whom really grasp "The EITC gave me $2000 this year" or whatnot. When people get money refunded to them at tax time, it's likely to be mentally processed as "I overpaid the damn government and now they owe me some of my money back."

Instead, imagine that the property tax and mortgage interest deductions, as well as the EITC, were replaced with an envelope that arrived on the 15th of every month with a stack of $100 bills and a letter reading, "Here is your payment for the (insert name here) benefit which Congress has appropriated for you under (law). This is a benefit. It is intended to alleviate the costs of (child care, home ownership, etc)."

Try that and tell me it wouldn't make people feel differently over five or ten years than the standard byzantine process of filing a tax return and the black box spitting out a refund (or asking for more). When a person gets an annual tax refund it isn't immediately clear what that money represents – I must have overpaid! – and lacks a connection to any specific program or policy. Whatever Congress eventually decides to do to provide a child care benefit, people must be made unambiguously certain that they are receiving a child care benefit to the tune of $3000 per year or whatever. Maybe that feels crass to you, instinctively, and your instinct is to say "Taking credit for helping doesn't matter, as long as they are helped."

But providing this kind of stealth social welfare is a big part of how readily Americans are hypocrites on that issue, slamming "welfare" and the government taking from Me to hand the money to Thee. Rebuilding faith in government and the social welfare state is going to begin with the very simplest step of making sure people are made aware of how much the government is already giving them, and doing for them. You will never convince everyone with that tactic, of course. Some people will still say "Bullshit, it's my money anyway until you stole it from me." But there are a lot of people out there benefitting from programs that they simply don't perceive as welfare policies that put money in their pocket.

Social policy AS SOCIAL POLICY, not disguised as tax policy, needs to make a comeback. I'm frankly stunned that Mitt Romney would be the person to propose such a thing, but whether or not he realizes that avoiding the IRS is consequential it very much is. Programs like Social Security and Medicare endure because enough people like them, and people like them because it is immediately and directly obvious what Social Security and Medicare give them. When people can see the benefits they will fight to keep them. When it's all invisible and in the background and feels like little more than a number punched into TurboTax, they won't. They'll continue to benefit while perceiving themselves solely as payers and never as the payee.

19 thoughts on “MAKE IT OBVIOUS”

  • OK, so it's 11 years old, but I doubt that things have changed much, and if they have, it's for the worse..
    Suzanne Mettler, β€œReconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenge of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” Perspectives on Politics (September 2010): 809 contains some tasty statistics on "Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They 'Have Not Used a Government Social Program'” including 44.1% of Social Security retirement benefit recipients, 60.0% of home mortgage interest deducters, and an astonishing 25.4% of food stamp recipients.

  • Most people think water comes from a pipe sticking out of the wall. Some people have a vague idea that water has something to do with lakes, rain and dams. I agree that IRS refunds/credits are almost completely opaque, but even a clearly marked check or explicit debit card update are as magical and mysterious to most people. Making a benefit a clearly marked monthly event would raise awareness, but we'll still see lots of the get-the-goverment's-hands-off-my-government-benefits attitude.

  • Speaking as a SS income recipient AND HEAPand Medicare AND EBT/SNAP AND reduced taxes on property AND a discounted water/sewer bill all I can say is this:

    I don't know if I deserve it; but I know I deserve it a FUCKUVALOT more than the 1%ers deserve another tax cut.

    And since we're talking about "stimulus"–every last dollar that I get from whatever gummint dept. for whatever reason, is sent back into the economy, fortwith. My total savings are something like $75.

    I get what Ed's saying but considering the number of people who support the p.o.s. that was just booted out of the Oval Office in a free (not fair–thanks to GOP gerrymandering over the last 50 or so years) election and hate the gummint who provides them with payments similar to those I receive–I don't think that it's shiftless and lazy BLACK people who are doing most of the kvetching.

  • I agree, but can't forget the old people who yell at their Congress critters to keep the government out of Medicare. The sad truth is that most people are so stupid it's mind boggling.

  • So I've been a policy analyst for government contractors for more than twenty-one years now, and there's another issue at work here that, similarly, is not transparent to most of the general public.

    The government operates on three levels, legislative, regulatory, and policy.

    At the simplest level, Congress passes a law that says what it says, in plain fucking English, with no ambiguity, and everybody knows what that law means. 42 CFR Β§ 435.407 is a good example. IMPORTANT NOTE: this almost never fucking happens. But that's what a legislative solution looks like.

    Many laws have some wiggle room in them. If you have a "Something must be done!" problem, Congress is good at passing a law that says that something must be done. That law will say something like "the Department of the Interior is hereby directed to create a program to save the puppies and kitties", and a month later the Federal Register will have a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking laying out the parameters of the Save The Puppies and Kitties Program, the public will be invited to comment, there'll be a hearing or two that only insomniacs watching CSPAN3 will even be fucking AWARE of, and then another month or three later the Final Rule on Puppies and Kitties will be posted to the Federal Register. The legislative 'solution', such that it was, was just "find a solution", the actual solution is regulatory. More government works this way than purely legislative solutions.

    HOWEVER: the regulatory authority for the program likely can't account for every edge-case, so somewhere in the Department of the Interior Puppies and Kitties Division is the person in charge of Puppy and Kitty Policy, so if there are specific questions involving how funding decisions will be made in the Puppy and Kitty area, this person wields near-ultimate power in their own personal really small closet in a government building. …or, in the current environment, in their much nicer home office in the suburban Maryland or Virginia DC suburbs. And MOST legislation works this way. It's the path of least resistance. Push the details down as low as possible, so the politicians can say "see? We did something", without ever clearly defining what that something was. Because, let's be honest here, what it was is really not important to the politician's messaging.

    If you do a legal analysis of entitlement programs, you'll find that more of them are more policy- and regulation-driven than legislative. Romney's proposed childcare plan that directs the SSA to cut people checks is legislative. Tax policy is largely regulation and policy. If we're making changes to the tax code, we can bury that shit in the fine print in the Federal Register where nobody will ever read it, but Romney wants people to make a stand on black letter law — black-letter law which also eliminates TANF and a bunch of other shit. It's not a great gift to the progressive public, it's a disingenuous assault on existing entitlement programs, and seriously, fuck that guy.

    …but that's why good things are often hidden in the tax code: it's just easier to do it that way.

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  • Ross Douchehat of the NYT wrote an op-ed piece praising Romney's plan, so I was a little surprised to see it brought up in this blog. Douchehat's opening premise was that America needs more babies. I confess I really didn't read the thing, but I enjoy pointing out that sanctimonious natalist out to anyone who harps that the NYT is a "liberal" newspaper.

  • Inky, bra, you need to up your game or, better, just shut the fuck up. Actually, considering your lack of empathy for normal people I was hoping to hear that you were one of the Trumpianfuckwadz who tried to gain by mob violence what they couldn't get by legislative legerdeamain, backroom skullduggery or suppression of the vote.

    BTW, honey, it's been quite some time since you have been asked to back up your baseless assertions about Ed coddling the 9/11 terrorists. So, where the FUCK is your proof, you lying sack of shit?

    I'm not really expecting anything by way of proof. You've amply demonstrated your casual disregard for truth.

    Your hero is a fucking rat and all of the idiots who were going to wrest his "victory" from the Congress seem to be more interested in lessening their own exposure to federal prison sentences by rolling over. Trump likes grabbing pussies, he's gotta LOVE those fuckers.

  • /S But if working class folk and their children are able to reach their full potential, how will the believers know who is right with Mammon? S/

  • Of course the advantage of using the tax code, and refunds, is that that way you make sure that when the benefits do arrive they are delivered in one lump sum at an unspecified date each year (unless you can afford a good accountant to spread it out, in which case you don't need to anyway).

    I remember back when I was graduate-student-poor,* and also had the kind of W9 that you get when you fill one out at age 23 and don't know what you're doing, and ended up getting about 1/8 of my yearly income in a check at some point in spring each year. It was great because I responsibly spread the benefits of that income across the entire year anyway and didn't randomly blow it on weird crap that now haunts my closets like an idiot every single time, just like you'd want that kind of funding to be used when crafting policy.

    *(Very little money; not actually poor.)

  • "*(Very little money; not actually poor.)"

    I'm told that Henry Ford once said that being broke was a financial condition, while being poor was a state of mind.

    He prolly said that before he helped to put his trousers on, because his wallet was so heavy.

  • Sorry – it's too good of an example…
    And this is why TRump insisted on holding up that COVID relief check in order to get his signature on every check or notice of benefit to the recipients. He wanted credit – and he got the credit in a lot of people's minds. Literally, a lot of people apparently though he personally wrote all those checks out of his own funds. It's one of the reasons they worship him.
    Making the connection between a benefit and it's source is crucial.

  • Certainly we who live in the "blue states" for whom Trump disallowed state income tax credits were able to figure out how much he was stealing from us. NY, NJ, CN and CT all got the shaft in one of the Donald's most diabolical moves. We are waiting for Biden to restore those allowances, and doubtless it won't be for the 2020 return.

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