Let’s talk about entitlements.
Americans don’t really like the idea of entitlements. We tend to think of entitlement as something that a person wants, but that they don’t deserve. At the best, politicians argue that we simply can’t afford entitlement programs. At the worst, charity skeptics lament the sense of entitlement that some people—especially people living in poverty—might develop.
And, of course, we resist the idea that we receive entitlements. We tend to believe that the only way to deserve something is to earn it. Other people might benefit from entitlements (that is, they might get something that they don’t deserve). We have always earned what we have (that is, we deserve what we have).
Our attitude towards entitlements means that any time ‘entitlement reform’ comes up, I start seeing people argue that programs like Social Security are not entitlements.
“You see,” say the people making that argument, “I paid into Social Security while I was working; and now that I’m retired, I am simply receiving a benefit that I earned. That is an earned benefit, not a loathsome entitlement.”
And the problem with that argument—the problem with our whole American attitude towards entitlement—is that it misunderstands what an entitlement is.((When it’s applied to Social Security, it also misunderstands how that program works. But that’s a subject for a different post.)) Whether something is an entitlement has nothing to do with whether a person earned it. An entitlement is simply something—anything—to which a person has a right.
Sometimes, we are entitled to something because we earned it: if I work a job, I am entitled to a paycheck. Sometimes, we are entitled to something because we as a society have decided that it’s something people should have: if I am charged with a crime, I am entitled to due process. I am entitled to both. Only one is conditional.
And that distinction is important. We can tell a lot about a society by what it believes people are entitled to (and who it believes is entitled to what).
The founders of the United States were very concerned with the legal system. They guaranteed things like a right to face your accusers, a right to call witnesses on your own behalf, a right to be tried by a jury, and a right to legal counsel. But it would be generations before we decided that everyone was entitled to those things.
In 1935, we decided that (some) people are entitled to cash payments from the rest of the country, so that they can live even if they can’t work. It began with (some) retired workers. And, over the decades, we’ve expanded it to include other workers, their spouses and minor children, people who are disabled, and others. We even decided to help (again, some) people who are just having trouble making ends meet. Social Security, Medicare, Disability Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program are all part of one entitlement package: The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Program.
And someday, maybe, we’ll decide that people are entitled to quality medical care, a good education, meaningful work, food that is nutritious and tasty, a comfortable place to live, and so on.
And there are three problems with arguing that things like Social Security aren’t entitlements.
First, it focuses on the wrong problem. The problem isn’t that people are calling things entitlements, it’s that they’re trying to take those entitlements away. And the people who are trying to take them away will try to do that even if we all agree to call them earned-benefit programs. They don’t hate these programs because they’re called entitlements. They hate them because they help people who need help.
Second, it makes us think in terms of transactions. It makes it look like we only deserve these benefits because we’ve earned them. And that makes it seem like there might be people out there who haven’t earned them, who don’t deserve them, and who should be left on their own. And that means that, even if we could all agree that the people who earned them benefits should get them, the argument only shifts to who has really earned them. Or to put it another way, when we start arguing that programs aren’t really entitlements, we start arguing on the terms that have been set by the people who want to ‘reform’ them.
Third, it limits our imaginations. This is related to my second point, but we need to make our ideas about what people are entitled to broader, not narrower. We will only move forward if we can begin to imagine what I wrote above—that people are entitled to quality medical care, a good education, meaningful work, and so on—and begin working on ways to make that dream a reality. Arguing that the few programs we have aren’t really entitlements only makes that farther.
An entitlement is merely something to which someone has a right. If we remember that, then we can avoid arguing on terms set by the very people who want to eliminate the few entitlements we have… and we can start working to make sure that everyone can enjoy the life to which they have a right.