A majority of those who do not believe the federal government plays a large role in their lives have received federal benefits
It’s easy to forget the role that the federal government has in our daily lives. Whether it’s funding the construction of the roads we drive on, ensuring our cell phone signals are clear of interference, or preventing deadly contaminants from entering the foods we eat, many government functions can be difficult to see. But just how unaware are people of the role that government plays in their lives?
Recent public opinion research conducted by the Partnership for Public Service and Freedman Consulting provides evidence that people do not recognize all of the things the federal government does to improve and maintain their quality of life, and that much of the public does not associate government with those positive activities.
Public opinion on the role of government
The polling found that about half the people in the U.S. said the federal government plays a “very” or “somewhat” significant role in their lives. By contrast, 40% said the federal government plays “not much of a role” or “no real role.”
However, a majority of people who said the federal government does not play much of a role in their lives also stated they have received federal benefits or assistance such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, veteran’s benefits, food stamps or housing assistance. Forty-five percent of those individuals said they currently receive one of those benefits while another 11% said they received such benefits in the past.
These findings come as tens of millions of people in the United States have received a government benefit as part of COVID-19 relief efforts during the past two years, even ignoring the important government work that has taken place in the background to fight the pandemic.
Those who said the government does not impact their life may not understand the way the government assists people around the country. Sixty percent of those who said the government plays no significant role in their lives said the impact of the federal government on the country is negative, compared with 32% who had a positive answer. Only 51% of those who said government had a somewhat or very significant role in their lives had similarly negative views of the federal government’s impact, and 46% said it had been positive. While some of the respondents may be unwilling to admit the government’s role through assistance and benefits, the data suggests that the lack of awareness of the source of their benefits has a real and significant effect on public support of government.
How can we improve public awareness of government services?
Building stronger recognition of the work of the federal government will take a wide variety of efforts. Government can improve how it makes the public more aware of the services and benefits it provides, but education may also play a critical role. Civics education remains a weak point in our nation’s education system. According to a poll conducted in 2021 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 56% of Americans, for example, are able to name the three branches of government.
In our research, participants responded positively when they were reminded of government’s role in society and of the services that they regularly receive. While it is not clear that such campaigns can entirely alleviate the problem, efforts to increase public awareness of the federal government’s role in our society are sorely needed if we are to build trust in our nation’s most important democratic institution.
For more details on the Freedman Consulting and Partnership for Public Service 2021 U.S. Trust Survey and its findings that break down the data by groups of population, as well as shed some light on the reasons behind a lack of trust in the U.S. federal government, see our recent report “Trust in Government: A Close Look at Public Perceptions of the Federal Government and Its Employees.”
Kendrick Baker is a project manager at Freedman Consulting, LLC.