Opinion

Iowa caucus and beyond: What's the role of government?

As Iowans caucus and other states vote for a Republican nominee, one issue is the role of federal government. Iowans may be surprised to learn that they get back more in individual federal assistance than they pay in federal taxes. And it's similar elsewhere.

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at J's Homestyle Cooking in Cedar Falls, Iowa Dec. 29 ahead of the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3. Up for debate: What's the role of the federal government?
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As Iowans caucus and other states vote for a Republican presidential nominee this month, one issue before voters is the role of the federal government – and whether they believe it serves their interests or not.

But it’s hard to know that without understanding what the government does. Surveys suggest that few have a sense of where their federal tax dollars go – even as they receive direct federal assistance. So Americans think that money is largely wasted.

In 2008, Cornell University asked 1,400 Americans if they had ever used a “government social program,” and 57 percent said no. But when the same respondents were asked if they had used any of 21 specific programs – from federal student loans to unemployment insurance – a whopping 94 percent said they had.

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Voters in Iowa will be the first to weigh in on the Republican presidential primary when they caucus on Jan. 3. But like the survey respondents in 2008, many Iowa residents may be unaware of the benefits the federal government affords them.

The average Iowa resident received $5,400 in direct federal assistance in 2010 (total federal aid to Iowa individuals, divided by the state’s population).

Iowans may balk at that number, but one resident’s monthly Social Security check plus Medicare coverage easily could cost the US Treasury $5,400 in a year. And a host of other federal programs – from Pell grants to rehabilitation for disabled veterans – provide valuable services to the people of Iowa and every other state.

But when a Gallup poll recently asked 1,000 Americans how much of every federal tax dollar they believe is wasted, they estimated an average of 51 cents. Gallup has been asking that question since 1979, and that’s the first time the response was more than half of every dollar.

Iowans on average paid $5,175 in federal taxes in 2010. That includes income and payroll taxes, as well as the estate tax and excise taxes on gasoline and other items. (It does not include corporate income taxes.) Since they each received $5,400 in direct federal assistance, Iowa residents on balance got all of their federal taxes back in 2010, plus some extra federal money to boot.

Iowa is not a special case; residents of other states receive comparable federal assistance and pay comparable taxes. So why do Americans think more than half of every tax dollar is wasted? Because they don’t make the connection between the hefty taxes they pay, and the generous benefits they enjoy. (There is plenty of waste, though, within those benefits they receive. For example, Medicare often pays for unnecessary tests and procedures.)

President Obama has received ample criticism for poorly communicating the accomplishments of his administration to the American people. But their failure to acknowledge the federal assistance received is an issue that pre-dates his presidency; Cornell conducted its poll back in 2008, before President Obama took office.

Voters must select a Republican nominee in the coming months, and then a president in November. Choosing a president means naming our aspirations for this country and imagining the government that will realize those aspirations. But before we talk about the government we want, first we should acknowledge the multitude of benefits provided by the government we already have. 

Mattea Kramer is senior research analyst at National Priorities Project, a nonprofit that hosts state-level data at data.nationalpriorities.org.

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