Government Program Usage and Political Voice


  • *Direct correspondence to Suzanne Mettler, Department of Government, Cornell University, 217 White Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853 〈〉. Suzanne Mettler will provide all data and coding information to those wishing to replicate the study. The authors thank anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and the Campbell Institute of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, which sponsored the survey on which their analysis is based.


Objectives. Despite the scope of U.S. social spending, we know little about cumulative program usage among individuals or how it may influence their political attitudes or behavior. This article examines program usage among citizens and probes the association of usage with program assessment and the likelihood of voting.

Methods. We examine these issues using the 2005 Maxwell Poll, which uniquely asked respondents about both usage of 18 social programs as well as attitudes about such programs and rates of political involvement.

Results. The data indicate that direct experience of social programs is fairly common and widespread across the population, but beneficiaries of programs differ in their assessments compared to nonbeneficiaries. Most significant, after controlling for various demographic factors, we find that the greater the number of universal programs citizens have used, the greater the likelihood that they vote; conversely, the greater the number of means-tested programs they have used, the lower their likelihood of voting.

Conclusion. Experiences of social programs may influence voter turnout and may help explain why young and less advantaged citizens vote less than older citizens. Trends in social provision may be fostering inequality of political voice, particularly among younger generations.