Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Government Aid and the Me Versus Them Mindset

We could do a lot to change the widespread perception that programs that help needy people are about winners and losers.

As I learned while I was executive director of the Maryland Medicaid program's Office of Eligibility Services, many Americans view government aid as a zero-sum contest -- something they will not get if someone else does.

The vast majority of the hundreds of letters my office received each year from residents inquiring about their Medicaid eligibility included something along the lines of "I deserve it, but others don't." Writers of every race, creed and political affiliation, from mountainous Garrett County to inner-city Baltimore to the rural Eastern Shore, expressed that belief.

You don't have to look far in the world of online commentary to find more evidence of this me versus them perception. A student-loan borrower posted the following meme to social media: "Looking back, I wished that I'd had a welfare baby instead of getting a degree -- you get a free baby and don't have to pay back welfare at 8% interest." Or as Kristina Ribali of Watchdog Opinion wrote, Kansas' legislative efforts that have reduced that state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) rolls by more than half offer former welfare recipients "the possibility of providing luxury items for their families ... with their own hard earned money; not someone else's."

Reframing mission statements and other strategies that target the general public could improve individuals' perceptions of aid, but efforts that directly address individuals and their interests are more likely to succeed. Civil-rights organizers have found that individuals' attitudes change in a lasting way when they are engaged at the personal level. The Human Rights Campaign concluded that individuals came to accept gay rights once they realized that they regularly interacted with gay people.

Proponents of aid programs need to directly address Americans' concerns that they are "losing" aid to others. One way to do so is to lay out in clear terms who gets what benefits and for what purposes. High-school civic textbooks, for example, could let students know that some 55 million Americans from all walks of life -- from former bank CEOs to fast-food workers -- get Medicare benefits. And social-services agencies, through their websites and printed materials, could paint profiles of those who receive government aid. Kansas' human-services agency, for example, could share the following information with the state's residents:

• Approximately 15,000 Kansans receive TANF payments. The program provides temporary cash assistance only to needy families whose adults cannot work. Recipients must look for work and are subject to drug tests. Payments for an individual amount to less than $3,500 per year.

• Approximately 400,000 Kansans receive Medicaid. The program provides health insurance to individuals with limited income and resources. Annual per-person expenditures average roughly $6,000 but are closer to $15,000 for aged individuals in nursing homes.

• More than 400,000 Kansans receive Medicare. The program provides health insurance to aged and disabled individuals. Most individuals can buy in, but those who earned just $250-$1,300 per quarter for 10 years of their life can get free hospital coverage. Annual per-person expenditures exceed $8,000. Once enrolled, individuals usually receive benefits until death.

Upon viewing this information side-by-side, a pot-smoking Medicare beneficiary who had worked for only 10 years and who had previously bemoaned "welfare drug addicts" could realize that he had "won" government assistance. Similarly, the adult child of two seniors who qualified for Medicaid coverage of their nursing-home care after living a comfortably middle-class existence could realize that her family had "won" government aid as well. Once most Americans realize that almost everybody directly benefits from government aid at some point in their lives, perceptions will improve.

Cheryl A. Camillo is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow to Canada and a former deputy Maryland state Medicaid director.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
Sponsored
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.