Why entitlement is not a four-letter word

August 25, 2011

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” wrote George Orwell in 1984. And so it is with a mangled word that is central to the 2012 presidential race and the work of the Congressional deficit-cutting Super Committee: entitlement.

In the context of federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare, the word entitlement refers to a benefit you are granted by law. You are entitled to the benefit not because it is welfare, but because it is a program you have paid into over time. You can count on it because it is insurance that isn’t subject to the judgment of a case worker or the spending priorities of budgetmakers.

This original – and accurate – meaning has been under attack ever since the days of the Reagan Revolution. One of the first shots was fired by David Stockman, the Reagan Administration budget director who famously called Social Security closet socialism and a “coast-to-coast soup line.” Stockman’s comment preceded Ronald Reagan’s proposal to slash Social Security benefits in 1981, a political debacle that ultimately led to the compromise reforms of the bi-partisan Greenspan Commission in 1983.

But the word entitlement has been under sustained and successful assault ever since, with the result that most Americans now understand it as a four-letter pejorative term connoting welfare—handouts for people who don’t pull their own weight. It’s used that that way by all Republicans, many Democrats and nearly all Beltway media.

Do entitlements play a role in our national debt problem? Yes and no.

Social Security doesn’t contribute directly to the deficit. The Social Security Trust Fund (SSTF) runs an enormous surplus – and despite what you hear, the program is cash flow positive if you include interest on SSTF bonds and income taxes paid on benefits by high-income recipients. Social Security does face a long-term imbalance around the year 2035, when the SSTF will be exhausted, but that problem can be remedied easily by eliminating the cap on income subject to payroll taxes (See: Warren Buffett.)

Social Security adds pressure on the deficit only in the sense that the SSTF surplus is invested in a special form of Treasury note that is owed back to the fund. But that obligation is no different than any other Treasury debt.

Rapidly escalating healthcare costs are a major driver of the deficit, but Medicare reflects that inflation; it isn’t a direct cause of it. What’s more, Medicare delivers far more healthcare for the buck than private insurance; the notion that we can cut costs through privatization just doesn’t hold water.

When pollsters ask the public about Social Security and Medicare, the response is clear: keep both programs intact. These responses are consistent across party lines and age groups. For example, a survey by progressive pollster Celinda Lake for the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare shows that Americans overwhelmingly reject the suggestion that Social Security contributes to the national deficit, or that benefits should be cut to reduce the debt.

But ask the public about entitlements, and the response is different. “Americans are less group-oriented and more individually oriented,” says Lake. “And entitlement sounds like something that is given to a group. When you describe this as an ‘earned benefit or a guaranteed benefit that you paid into,’ that sounds like something that is individualistic.”

One of the ironies here is that the architects of Social Security and Medicare took great pains to distinguish the programs from welfare. Instead, they were designed to be social insurance programs, which pool risk broadly. In the case of Social Security, you pay for protection while you’re working, so that you and your family will be protected when you can’t work.

The Orwellian destruction of entitlement exploits public ignorance of this excellent concept.

“In areas where people people are unfamiliar with a concept, the best way to reach them is through analogy,” says Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

“An analogy moves you from a domain you don’t know to a domain you do understand. If the analogy for Medicare is entitlement, that makes people think of a handout. If the analogy is insurance that you pay for with your taxes, not only are you mapping to a domain people consider completely legitimate and appropriate, but you are reminding them that their taxes are going for something that is useful to them.”

Social Security and Medicare aren’t just useful – they’re essential pillars holding up the rickety roof of retirement security. Now, both will be subject to the work of the Super Committee, which will be dominated by Republicans and so-called centrist Democrats who could very well send entitlement cuts to the full Congress for an up or down vote. On the campaign trail, Republicans unanimously declare their readiness to cut entitlements, and President Obama seems ready to go along.

But here’s the good news: Orwell’s Newspeak aimed to supplant the English language entirely by the year 2050. So, there’s still plenty of time to stop the destruction of entitlements before it’s too late.


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It is not an entitlement because I paid for it. I am still working and paying for it and drawing social security. The republicans and their billionaire friends want to create a serfdom royalty society with them at the top of the heap. The District of Columbia is their Kingdom and they want to make us their serfs.

Posted by David123456789 | Report as abusive

Well, all private property in the USA is an entitlement. It is yours because the Government says it is yours. If they want to take 15% of the Social Security and Medicare entitlements, let them confiscate 15% of the real estate, stocks, bonds and private pensions in the country too. They are all entitlements, and we all know the USA cannot “afford” entitlements.

Time for a new Constitution people. Read our current Constitution — the founders knew it could be corrupted. Time to start over.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive



The word “entitlement” originally meant that someone deserves something. In the case of Social Security and Medicare, we the taxpayers are “entitled” just like we are entitled to receive insurance benefits for which we have paid premium.

The problems lies in another way of thinking: “The world owes me”. I believe that in “Fiddlers on the Roof”, a formerly rich man was telling a beggar why he can no longer give as much, and the beggar in turn asked: “What does your not having money have to do with your not giving me some money?” To the beggar, he thinks he is “entitled” to receive this hand-out from this formerly rich person.

Therefore there is this confusion of the 1st form of “entitlement” where one deserves getting something for which he had paid for, with the 2nd form of “entitlement” where the recipient thinks “the world owes me, I am entitled”.

The 1st form of Social Security and Medicare is a BINDING CONTRACT between the government and the taxpayers. The government is not legally entitled to renege on it. The government however, should manage it better. Social security can be put on the same footing as e.g. an university endowment, where for instance, 4% of three-year rolling principle would be paid out each year. And Medicare payout can be similarly treated. The problem with Medicare is that health care science keeps on improving and the dying can be kept alive for longer and longer period at an infinitely increasing cost. Perhaps having Medicare copy insurance companies with a life-time cap can partially solve this problem. Then there is fraud. Huge fraud. And the crooks get away with it with often just a slap on the hands. Perhaps the amount stolen can be used to determine the length of incarceration … with the incarcerated working while in jail to partially repay the loss with remainder to feed himself… and let them starve if they do not work hard enough. The taxpayers have no obligation to support these crooks in Club Fed. The crooks can be finally allowed to leave prison only AFTER they have fully paid back what they had stolen.

Finally let us take a page from the French cultural institute, and let our arbiter of information, the reporters, use words with correct and unambiguous meanings. First perhaps we can use “Government Insurance Benefits – GIB” to describe Social Security and Medicare benefits. Then perhaps we can use “Government charity” to describe welfare. If we get use to using the proper words to describe the proper events, then this mix up with words such as “entitlement” would no longer exist.

Once we learn to describe situations and things with the proper words, we can learn to think clearer. When we, the voters think clearer, we can perhaps elect more deserving candidates. Then perhaps we will get the government that we all want and would then eventually deserve.

Dr. Ying – The Dr. is Ying :-)

Posted by DrYing | Report as abusive