The word “entitlement” has undergone an unfortunate series of mutations in the last forty years. Prior to that, its focus in federal budget issues was on what was directly related to basic human rights.
During the Nixon years, the accelerated rise in the payments made by Social Security, Medicare and other programs made “entitlement” an aspect of the federal budget which was “freighted with powerful meanings and connotations.” By the Reagan administration, conservatives and liberals alike were applying their own connotations. To conservatives, “entitlement” suggested money was going to “people unworthy of support” and who were draining the wallets of those who deserved to keep their income. Liberals wanted “to make the case that certain payments to individuals should be reckoned as rights rather than privileges.”1
We Must Distinguish Between “Entitlements” and “Unearned Outlays”
If we are ever to dissect federal spending accurately in order to make equitable decisions especially in times of budget crunch, we must restore “entitlement” to its original meaning. It should be restricted to those instances where someone deserves a payment regardless of current economic conditions or trends in social policy.
For example, if a worker and his employer pay into the Social Security system for decades, then the retired worker is entitled to receive his money plus a just rate of return. Likewise, every human being has a right to life. In these two examples, the person has a right to something which must be respected and not arbitrarily reduced by circumstances without his willing acceptance.
On the other hand, necessary programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program) and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)2 should not be labeled “entitlements.” Instead, “unearned outlay” or another accurate term ought to be used unless the funds come from what a person has paid into the Social Security program. To emphasize, this is not to suggest that these programs shouldn’t exist. Rather, they should be viewed accurately, which will help determine what is a reasonable level of government involvement.
When Social Security IS an Entitlement and When it is NOT
Social Security payments to those who paid into the system should be considered as true entitlements. Whether it is basic retirement checks or payments made to those on S.S. disability, individuals are simply receiving their money back with deserved interest.
Other payments, such as survivor benefits to minor children until they reach age 18, could be labeled as unearned outlays, not entitlements, especially if the deceased worker was quite young and had contributed to the program for just a few years.
Again, “unearned outlays” is not meant to imply that the money disbursed is being wasted on undeserving citizens. Rather, it makes a key distinction which separates it from what should be “non-negotiable” government responsibilities.
Imprecise Language Hurts Problem-Solving
The subtleties of languages can be crucial in communication, and communication is crucial to solving problems. When an originally innocent term such as “entitlement” spreads beyond its normal boundaries, it will cloud the federal budget negotiation process with debilitating innuendo. It’s time that, not only the Congress, but we as citizens take the time to separate what is truly a commitment on the part of the government from what is negotiable spending. Falling short of that, we will not be able to break the federal deficit free-fall.
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Oscar A. (Tony) Rubio is a writer who merges the lessons of history with current events to suggest a better path. He resides in Cincinnati, Ohio and believes that our national mood would be improved if we listened to more Big Band and Jazz as we look forward to the White House changing occupants on January 20, 2017. Tony blogs at www.cartaremi.wordpress.com and www.sportuoso.wordpress.com.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.
1 – from “The war over ‘entitlements’” by Michael A. Bernstein, www.blogs.reuters.com, 11/2/2012
2 – from Wikipedia