Social Security. Medicare. Veterans’ disability and other benefits. For tens of millions of Americans, they’ve come hard earned: through decades of work, hundreds of thousands of dollars in payroll tax payments, and many other hard sacrifices. These government programs are all that stands between many Americans and abject poverty. But some politicians and opinion makers, like to call them “entitlements” or even “entitlement spending.”
Words mean things. They also imply and suggest things, often covertly. These words provide a particularly disturbing example of just how damaging a hidden emotional message that flies under the radar of critical thinking can be.
“Entitlement” sounds innocuous enough, but it’s objectionable because it conjures up the image of a privilege that neither was earned nor is really needed, but that the recipient refuses to forego because he or she is—well, entitled.
“Entitlement spending” takes this line of thought a step further. It suggests—and is intentionally portrayed as—a troublesome class of government programs that mindlessly crank out, as if on autopilot, ever increasing sums to the “entitled.” The high cost of these programs, so the reasoning goes, depletes the government’s coffers, and makes it necessary to cut funding in other areas where it is more urgently needed.
In reality, the exact opposite is true.
“Entitlements” is an intentionally misleading term
Politicians can and do sometimes decide that someone is entitled to something—for example, that oil companies are entitled to special tax breaks because the oil in the land they own is being depleted, or that voters in a certain district are entitled to a fair share of public works projects. These decisions may or may not be wise. But once they are made, money for them is taken from the Federal Budget general fund and spent.
Money spent on “entitlements,” by contrast, has already been earned by the recipients. They’ve paid for them, and are now looking to the government to hold up its end of the bargain.
In other words, funding problems arise not because “entitlements” are gobbling up all the money that is needed for politicians’ discretionary expenditures. Rather, through their choices, our political leaders have failed to properly fund the obligations our government has rightfully incurred (like Social Security or Medicare).
Of course, there is still plenty of money being spent on discretionary items like tax breaks for the ultra-rich or the famous Alaskan “bridges to nowhere”. But now that it appears that there may not be enough “left over” to fund Social Security, it, along with other “entitlements,” is blamed for a “crisis.” It’s kind of like a spendthrift father who squanders the family budget at the local bar, but who then tries to shift the blame for the family’s precarious finances to his wife by accusing her of spending far too much of the drinking money on the rent!
An Intentionally Misleading Concept
How has this backward logic wormed its way into our public discourse? It hasn’t been accidental. Rather, those among us would deny their fellow citizens that which is rightfully theirs consciously promote the bogus concept of “entitlements” as a means for demonizing not those who waste the money, but those who truly are “entitled” to it.
Here’s a small, recent sampling:
We Can’t Tax Our Way Out of the Entitlement Crisis
Recent headline in WSJ op-ed
Public Policy in the Age of Entitlements
White paper on the Heritage Foundation Web site
The Entitlement Mess
Article on Real Clear Politics, that contains the following sentiments:
[W]hat about “entitlements”? That’s the government’s ironic term for programs that transfer money from people who earned it to people who didn’t. Entitlement? How can you be entitled to someone else’s money?
And on and on.
A More Honest Debate
In a free society, every penny paid out by the Federal government can and should be open to public scrutiny and debate. As a nation, it’s up to us to determine how to properly compensate those who (often involuntarily) have entrusted the government with payroll deductions for their future retirement or health needs, or even with years of their life in defense of our country. We must indeed decide how to give them what they’ve earned.
But let’s not forget that the operative word here is earned, not entitled. To suggest that veterans’ sacrifices weren’t enough to earn the benefits promised to them while they were serving is morally repugnant. Medicare is a compulsory health insurance program: you pay “premiums” while you’re working, and are insured against at least some of the cost of health care when you retire. And Social Security is, in essence, a compulsory retirement savings program.
Yes, it’s true that Social Security isn’t really a savings fund. Monies deducted from your paycheck aren’t invested for the future, but instead are used to pay the benefits of those already retired (whose contributions, made years ago, funded the benefits of the generation before).
In hindsight, structuring Social Security’s in this way may have been less than ideal. Those who wish to criticize its Depression-era architects for not anticipating the financial consequences of the demographic boom-and-bust of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s are free to do so if they wish. And it may well be necessary to tinker with the internal workings of the system in order to keep it viable for the future.
None of this, however, alters Social Security’s basic intent: to provide a guaranteed, government-sponsored pension to all working Americans—rich, poor, and everywhere in between—by requiring them to contribute to that pension while they’re working. The program has been wildly successful. The majority of its participants depend on it in order to enjoy, rather than suffer through, the last decades of their lives.
There does indeed exist a minority of retirees who are financially so well off that their Social Security benefits are small compared to their other income. This tiny group would continue to live well if it received lesser Social Security payments, or none at all. But its members have earned their benefits and should receive them. To deny this group its Social Security benefits is as morally wrong as to deny it its interest and dividends because someone, somewhere has decided that they are not “needed.”
Nonetheless, certain journalists and politicians routinely trot out these rare creatures—independently wealthy recipients of Social Security—and decry the fact that they are “drawing government benefits.” The intention is clear: to recast Social Security (and Medicare, and veterans’ benefits) in the public mind from guaranteed quality-of-life programs based on earnings—which they really are—into welfare programs based on “need.” The next step, of course, is to radically curtail benefits to all but those who, ironically, have financially contributed the least. You can bet that cuts won’t be limited to the rich, since they only make up a tiny percentage of the beneficiaries. The real intent is to disenfranchise the middle class.
Those who are seeking to foist this unsavory agenda on the American people will continue to whine about “entitlements.” We enjoy free speech in America, so they’re within their rights to do so.
As for the rest of us: let’s put these misleading, sometimes insulting, terms to rest, and come up with something different. Perhaps we could speak of “earned benefits” or “prepaid government services.”
Almost anything is better than “entitlements.”