Resist the temptation to call this “public ignorance”and leave it at that. There may be room for legitimate disagreement about what constitutes a government program. We all drive on the interstate—does that mean we all benefit from government programs? (Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I’m entitled to ask the question without knowing the answer. Even in the blogosphere, not all questions are leading questions.) Nevertheless, it does seem noteworthy that over a quarter of the participants in Welfare—the program that Eleanor Rosch might deem the prototypical government program—deny participating in government programs.
Suzanne Mettler's piece in Perspectives on Politics (free access to PDF) has many fascinating arguments about the political consequences of public ignorance about the benefits that people receive from the state. But this table is jawdropping. It shows the percentage of people who (a) benefit from various programs, and (b) claim in response to a government survey that they 'have not used a government social program.'
Mettler's basic argument is that because the US welfare state is 'submerged' and sliced up among a variety of different programs, many of which operate indirectly rather than directly, it is mostly invisible to US citizens. This has obvious political consequences - 'government social programs' are equated to 'welfare' and stigmatized. The fact that nearly half of Social Security recipients do not believe that they have benefited from a government social program, and that the same is true of some 40% of G.I. Bill beneficiaries and Medicare recipients is a rather extraordinary one.