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22 Volume
1-2 Number
2009 Year
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Shaping Attitudes, Shaping Politics

Suzanne Mettler, Government Mettler
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How Have U.S. Social Policies Changed Since the 1970s?

What Shapes Citizens’ Attitudes and Participation in Government?

I ask a key question throughout my research: When people experience a government program—for example as a beneficiary of the GI Bill (one of my major completed studies) or recipient of Pell Grants, or when they encounter a government agency such as the Department of Motor Vehicles—how does that experience shape their attitudes about government? How does it influence how they perceive government’s role and which responsibilities should be left to the private sector? How do these experiences of public policy and government agencies affect people’s participation in politics?

Many social scientists study the social and economic consequences of public policy. If they look at social policies, for example, they ask: “Do more people go to college as a result of Pell Grants? Are there fewer people or more people in poverty as the result of the policy of study?” But we rarely ask how policies shape politics—how they shape the political attitudes and participation of beneficiaries and other citizens.

In the middle of the 20th century, many people participated in politics at higher rates than their counterparts have in recent decades. Since the mid-1970s, we have seen a decline among young people and low-income people. By the same token, more affluent people take part in more and different activities than in the past, particularly given the growing importance of campaign contributions. To what extent do these changes have to do with transformations in the role of government in people’s lives? The middle of the 20th century was a time of high economic growth, but government also did much more to help ordinary people weather times of economic insecurity and to move people out of poverty than has been the case in the past 30 years. Does this make a difference?

Illuminating a Change in American Social Policies

I have two large-scale projects under way: one on 20 social policies, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, and one on higher education policies. I look at 20 social policies at the national level in the United States and at how these policies have changed from the 1970s to the present. They include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment insurance, Pell Grants, and also student loans. They include programs that are part of the tax code, like the home mortgage interest deduction and the nontaxability of employer-provided retirement benefits. I want to know how the real value of these policies has changed over time. How have these changes affected the attitudes of citizens about government and their participation in politics?

GI Bill Users Participate More in Civic Activities and Politics

I begin with the GI Bill story because of the implications for my two studies. Many people consider the GI Bill a landmark program in American politics. It enabled veterans after World War II to pursue more education or training at government expense—college or vocational training. How did this affect people’s participation in politics? After people benefited from such a generous government program, might they become more active in politics, or might they have become dependent on government and be less active?

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