The Problem with Invisible Government

government stampThe odds are good that you’ve benefited from a federally subsidized college loan or a home interest mortgage deduction or the Earned Income Tax Credit. The odds are also good that you don’t think of these as government programs.

Jonathan Cohn wrote a great piece in The American Prospect about how support for government has dropped, and how that is in part due to the fact that many government programs are practically invisible. Consider President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus. It’s credited with saving the country for a much worse downturn, but much of the money went to temporary tax cuts and fiscal relief so state and local governments didn’t have to make deeper budget cuts. To most people, those investments are invisible. Plus, the stimulus didn’t provide the kind of immediate fix that gets people’s attention, as Cohn explains:

Of course, the Recovery Act did not produce the quick, robust recovery that Americans wanted. It took five years for the economy to start generating jobs at a significant, steady rate—and it wasn’t until early this year, with announcements from Walmart and other large retailers, that there were some tangible, if still tentative, signs that wages at the lower end of the income scale might finally start rising. The Obama administration need only point to Europe, where austerity policies have produced a far weaker recovery, to show that U.S. economic policies have made a substantial difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. But those policies did not produce a good outcome so much as they avoided a worse outcome. And that’s not something for which people are likely to give the government much credit.

When much of the public automatically equates government spending with waste, it’s hard to create programs that are highly visible and pack a big punch. But the tendency to go small and quiet only perpetuates the idea that our government isn’t doing anything worthwhile.

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