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The Pandemic Could Change American Attitudes Toward Government Services


Remember when the news of the day was what presidential candidates were fighting about onstage? Some candidates were pushing to broaden the social safety net, like expand access to health care. And then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and those ideas suddenly gained more traction on both sides of the aisle in the form of trillions of dollars of rescue money, money for free coronavirus testing, expanded sick leave, broader unemployment insurance, which all raises the question - could this crisis change what Americans expect from their government?

Joining me to talk about that is Suzanne Mettler. She's a professor of government at Cornell University.


SUZANNE METTLER: Thank you. Happy to be here.

CHANG: You know, what we've seen the past few weeks is a Republican president with a Republican-controlled Senate push through these three massive relief packages, including the most expensive one in U.S. history. But 11 years ago, after the financial crisis, only a handful of Republicans had supported the 2009 economic stimulus. What does that shift signal to you?

METTLER: Well, it's a fascinating shift. And I think what it comes down to is the Republicans right now are really in control of government, with their president in the White House and their majority in the Senate. And this is a huge crisis. They have to respond to it. And it's also an election year. So the buck really stops with them. And it has been enough to make them shift their position very dramatically.

CHANG: I mean, so even though a lot of Americans out there do not like the idea of big government. When people have immediate needs, when they're out of a job or they're taking care of a sick loved one at home, it becomes more politically palatable to set those big ideas aside.

METTLER: Absolutely. And, you know, there have been patterns shown in public opinion that go way back to the 1960s, when scholars found that if you ask Americans on surveys broad questions about what size government should be and taxes and so on, they sound like they're ideological conservatives. They want small government, low taxes.

But in the very same survey, if you ask people questions about their support for specific government programs, they will nearly always say they want spending on those programs to be at least kept the same and often increased. And scholars continue to find this right up to the present. So people are both ideological conservatives, but at the same time, they are utilitarian liberals.

CHANG: Well, I'm wondering, was there something about how this particular $2 trillion economic relief package, the latest one that was passed, how that was designed to make it even more well received?

METTLER: One of the big things that it does is that it will send checks to Americans, outright checks.

CHANG: That's always popular.

METTLER: Well, that's right. And it's very different than what Obama did in the 2009 stimulus, where a huge amount of money went directly to Americans, but instead of sending them checks, what the government did was allowed people to pay less in taxes. And the fascinating thing was that while 95% of workers got those tax benefits, they were mostly invisible to people. So one year later, people were surveyed and only 12% knew that their taxes had actually been lowered in the past year.

CHANG: So this most recent receptiveness that we're seeing in Congress to expand the social safety net, how long do you think this could last? I mean, I'm thinking back to Social Security, which came out of the Great Depression. It is still around today. What was it about that idea that allowed it to take hold for decades?

METTLER: When it was first enacted, policymakers in the Roosevelt administration were nervous about how well it was going to go over. But what happened over time is that Americans loved the policy. And so when we get to the 1980s and the Reagan administration threatened cutbacks to Social Security, senior citizens mobilized, and they've been a very powerful constituency ever since, trying to protect their benefits.

CHANG: So the fear of big government might not ever go away, but do you think there is something inherently different about this crisis that we are in right now that could reshape people's expectations of the federal government?

METTLER: What this coronavirus pandemic really illustrates is that we're all in this together. Taking care of our low-wage workers who work in food services, for example, is essential for the public health of all of us. So I think that, you know, that could change the way we think about things. But it's all going to be a matter of political debate and how policies are framed, how visible government's role is and then, of course, who wins elections.

CHANG: Suzanne Mettler is a professor of government at Cornell University and the author of "The Government-Citizen Disconnect."

Thank you very much for joining us today.

METTLER: Oh, I've enjoyed it. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.