Not in this case. Instead, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that the deficit problem must be addressed by cutting what are now commonly referred to as “entitlements.” But what exactly are entitlements? The name sometimes functions as a kind of dirty word uttered with a sneer, as if recipients are getting something unearned. “She has a sense of entitlement.” The term conjures up people we’ve all known who think they “deserve” everything that they want without really working hard for it.
Consider the different senses and implications of three different definitions of “entitlement”: (1) “The fact of having a right to something.” (2) “The amount to which a person has a right,” and (3) “The belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.” The first definition presents the right as something that’s a given, established and not to be questioned. The second one focuses on what a person should have. The third reminds us of an attitude of superiority, or a person who doesn’t even realize that the wind has always been at their back and that they don’t necessarily deserve their good fortune. These are three very different ways to think about entitlements; sliding from the first two to the third moves one towards rejecting anything with the label.
“Entitlements” in political discourse refer to programs of the federal government that include Medicare, Social Security, unemployment benefits, and aid programs such as Medicaid, CHIP (for children’s health), SNAP (or “food stamps”). Entitlements could also be considered to include benefits for veterans, but that’s not what most politicians mean when they use the term. These programs and benefits are entitlements in the sense that qualifying citizens and certain non-citizens are entitled to use those programs by federal law. For example, senior citizens over 65 are entitled to use Medicare, although they do have to pay for parts of it. As the Medicare example illustrates, entitlements are not something for nothing. In fact, until recently, these programs were more commonly referred to as “social programs” or parts of “the social safety net.”
The point is not that there is just one way to label or characterize these and other programs. Rather, it is the need for awareness of what a huge difference it can make to call something, repeatedly, a negative – or a positive – name. Because the third sense of the term “entitlement” has come to dominate our thinking, it is easy to fall into believing that “entitlements” mean giving benefits to those who believe they are “deserving of privilege or special treatment.” The official government term, however, is used to refer to benefits to which people have a right.
To use another example, what used to be commonly called “inheritance taxes,” for example, got re-labeled by some political consultants “death taxes”—so as to suggest the idea that: “Hey, even after you’re gone from this world, you are still taxed!” This shift, by consultants’ own admission, played a huge role in the rollback of these taxes. But, think about it for a moment: What if, from a different standpoint, inheritances taxes had been relabeled “taxes on rich families that pass along their wealth to the next generation”? This would have a different ring to it and perhaps a different effect. Even the relatively neutral IRS term “estate tax” may imply either that your ancestral grand “estate” will be taxed or that all the furniture and trinkets sold at your granny’s “estate sale” will be taxed. But the fact is that the current $11 million exemption (doubled for 2018) means that the heirs of only about 0.2 percent of those recently deceased will be paying that tax.
Back to entitlements: Look at your paycheck. You may see deductions for OASDI (Old Age Survivor and Disability Insurance, also known as Social Security) and/or Fed Med/EE for Medicare and/or FICA, which refers to the combined taxes withheld for Social Security and Medicare. For example, we two authors have been paying into those programs via payroll deduction for about 100 years between us. The result is some true social security, as was the intention of the program when it was instituted in 1935 in response to the virtual collapse of the economy and the devastation of millions of lives in the Great Depression.
So, are most people entitled to what we’ve come to call “entitlement” benefits? Perhaps so. Are the wealthiest Americans entitled to additional huge tax cuts? Maybe not. In answering questions like these, let’s look carefully at each program, each proposal, and each policy for their effects on the relevant segments of the public. But, let’s also consider the potential impact of creating even more economic and social insecurity by further ripping the safety net.
George Cheney and Sally Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent the university or any other institution.