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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?

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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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.

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.

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