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Why Is “Entitlement” A Dirty Word?

July 20th, 2010 . by economistmom


On the San Francisco public radio show I did yesterday, the host kept informing me that she was getting many calls and emails (and maybe “tweets”) complaining about my use of the word “entitlements” when I referred to the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.  No one actually explained to me why they found the word offensive, but one hint I got was the one caller who suggested that my organization was part of a “libertarian” effort to end/dismantle/destroy Social Security.  (I was not given the opportunity nor had enough time to explain that our goals are precisely the opposite; if someone like Erskine Bowles, a co-chair of the President’s fiscal commission, compares the fiscal unsustainability of the federal budget to a “cancer,” it is because they want to get rid of the cancer, not let it kill the patient.)

So I started wondering why the term “entitlement” was viewed with such hostility as a value-laden, judgment-laden term.  I looked up “entitlement” on and found these definitions:

From the Random House dictionary:

The right to guaranteed benefits under a government program, as Social Security or unemployment compensation.

From the American Heritage dictionary:

A government program that guarantees and provides benefits to a particular group: “fights . . . to preserve victories won a generation ago, like the Medicaid entitlement for the poor” (Jason DeParle).

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary of law:

A government program that provides benefits to members of a group that has a statutory entitlement; also : the benefits distributed by such a program.

So I still don’t “get” what’s so bad about the term, but I guess in a time when even the word “taxes” is a “dirty” word (and “rationing” a nasty one as well), the ugliness of the word is in the ear of the listener, and listeners often listen through their ideological ear plugs (while bound in their ideological straitjackets).

What would readers suggest is a better label for these government programs?  How about something like my AmEx card uses for their bonus points program:  “Membership Rewards”?  (Does that sound more deserving?)  Regardless (and carrying this analogy a little further), it’s still the case that we are not charging enough in membership fees to cover the cost of our (federal) “rewards” program.  If I were to suggest charging higher fees (don’t say “taxes”) or reducing the generosity of the rewards (don’t say “entitlements”) or some combination of both, it’s not to suggest we get rid of the rewards program altogether, but because I like the rewards program and don’t want it to go away.

Your ideas?  (Use the above cartoon by Tom Tomorrow as inspiration.)

20 Responses to “Why Is “Entitlement” A Dirty Word?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Jason Seligman

    Citizenry has its privilege, indeed. And in fact SSA has reciprocal agreements with many but not all other nations who host some sort of public retirement system. So the exclusiveness of the AmEx Card or the Admirals’ club is a bit of a straitjacketed way of thinking about this entitlement. (That is to say that the analogue is a bit narrow)

    Other rhetorical frames:
    What if the human rights movement had been labeled “the human privilege movement,” (other speicies might view it as such…), or the workers’ rights movement, “worker privilege,” or the Equal Rights Amendment… you get the idea. In much the same way that some math is “Theorem” and other math is “Law” perspective and rhetoric are interlinked.
    Stepping aside the healthcare cost debate (we don’t know how “bent” that cost curve will wind up getting!) For retirement, the problem with the word “entitlement” he is that it tends to suggest that no effort is required to engage the benefit and that is not true with Social Security, broadly — benefits are a function of earnings, what you get out is a function of what you put in, with some exception. For example the benefits formula afford one increases in payments over time as a function of general increases in productivity, which is a bit divorced from individual achievement, and those who have more children in fact are making more provision for funding future benefits than those that have fewer (holding education and other factors constant). Entitled? Right now by law no one is entitled to their full benefit if the trust fund balance and withholding are less than the bill for full entitlement, which makes a payroll tax expenditure budget more important to consider than otherwise…
    Disability and Unemployment are other social insurance programs that are underfunded at the moment, but let’s turn that “Entitlement” phrase around again and call them “underfunded mandatory insurance programs….
    Feel, umm…, Entitled yet?

  2. comment number 2 by: AMTbuff

    This is the euphemism treadmill, as described by Prof. Steven Pinker. Rather than the word re-framing reality, reality re-frames the word. Below is an excerpt from

    Why have the San Diego and Boston city councils recently banned the word “minority” as derogatory, when its literal meaning is neutral? He suggested this exemplified a “euphemism treadmill,” in which a word for an emotionally charged concept is replaced, in hopes of redefining people’s attitudes toward the concept. But instead, the new word becomes tainted, prompting the search for yet another fresh word, and so on.

    Pinker said linguists had already noted the process with concepts as diverse as toilets (”lavatories, bathrooms, restrooms”), disabilities (”crippled, handicapped, disabled, challenged”), and old folks (”elderly, golden agers, senior citizens”).

  3. comment number 3 by: rjs

    what drives the public dialog is the definitions supplied by glenn beck and rush limbaugh…maybe you should ask them why its a dirty word?

  4. comment number 4 by: AMTbuff

    FWIW, I though entitlement was a neutral term, but then again I never saw any need to change many of other perfectly serviceable terms mentioned in the Pinker quote above.

  5. comment number 5 by: Rob

    Entitlements is a word amongst words that have been vilified by the right. They overlook the fact that Social Security is paid into by the people looking to eventually retire, so if they pay into it they should be entitled.

    Unemployment is not paid directly by the employee, but is paid into by employers as based on the value an employee was paid and the hours they work each quarter. The employee actually has to have demonstrated they worked during the claiming period for eligibility.

    The Republicans can balk all they like but the world is not just ambling along based on fate. Lawmakers exercise a lot of control over cause and effect. If you deregulate Banks, they get creative with how they make money, and well, we all know what happens now when Lobbyists persuade Congress to ease Financial Regulations.

    Further, we are learning what happens to a workforce when you no longer create jobs to employ them, offshore, outsource, and allow workers to come in from other economies. You create a group of people who can quickly become overcome by the US cost of living when it overtakes their descending standard of living, when their past expenses no longer retain their asset value.

    The biggest give a heck is, the middle class never saw it coming, nor would have wished it upon themselves, but Congress knew it was possible, and the took the gamble. A gamble that has so far cost Americans a LOT more than TARP ever did.

    Lawmakers should be careful about the words they choose to vilify. Legislator is getting to sound as foul as any.

  6. comment number 6 by: VAT Brat

    Anne Applebaum had an awesome column today explaining the entitlement mentality among our citizenry.

    Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme collapsing under its own weight. Despite this fact, it is hailed by many econonomists, most politicians, and a good chunk of the electorate as a wonder of progressive political genius.

    Any economist who believes that a healthcare program based on fee for service model will someday bend the cost curve of health care in this country should be banished to the sociology department of the nearest community college. Yet we had countless progressive sycophants parrot this nonsense, and economists who should have known better remained silent.

    All the morons that believed that politicians could give them something for nothing are the same idiots who think Tom Tomorrow’s cynical cartoons (that incidently omit government employees from its frames) are striking a blow for political reason.

    They deserve to spend 6 years after the age of 65 working 6 hours/day on math problems involving computation of annuities, net present values, and amortization of loan payments. Then they will be constantly reminded how stupid they were voting for the politicians that supported these entitlement programs during their lifetimes.

  7. comment number 7 by: AMTbuff

    >Entitlements is a word amongst words that have been vilified by the right.

    This is news to me. Can you document this assertion? I’ve always heard “entitlements” or “entitlement programs” used as a shorthand for Medicare, SS, and Medicaid, never as a general pejorative. Can you show me instances where “entitlements” or “entitlement programs” have been used other than as shorthand for the set of these 3 specific programs?

    Alternatively, if it is the programs being vilified and not the word “entitlements”, how would changing the word to another make any difference?

    Please enlighten me. Like Diane, I don’t understand the objection here.

  8. comment number 8 by: Arne

    “entitlements” or “entitlement programs” [is] used as a shorthand for Medicare, SS, and Medicaid

    Since the issues facing each of these programs are entirely different, there is little good reason to lump them together. People who lump them together are generally doing so to bash them. Thus the term entitlements ends up being negative.

  9. comment number 9 by: AMTbuff

    People lump them together because they have a shared characteristic: They are promises that the government cannot afford to keep over the coming decades. Among all other government spending, only employee pensions share this characteristic.

  10. comment number 10 by: Josh Uy

    Maybe we should call them consequences or govt comsequence programs. I’m trying to teach my 2 and 3 year olds the meaning of the word consequence. It all starts with the if then statement. ie if you finish your veggies then you can get down to play.

  11. comment number 11 by: Chuck Lindholm

    I am curious why feminists aren’t up in arms about the discriminatory practice within Social Security of paying benefits to the minor children of older men who have started receiving social security benefits.

    It seems to me that this is nothing more than government supported child support for older rich white guys that marry younger women! Let’s get rid of that!

    According to an ad a number of years ago by Congresswoman Matsui 30% of social security benefits go to children of survivors and those on social security disability. Social Security was never designed to take the place of life insurance to provide for your survivors or disability insurance. Let’s require the proper insurance of everyone through insurance and stop the improper payments from a RETIREMENT SYSTEM.

  12. comment number 12 by: Arne

    Actually, Social Security has two separate funds. Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insur­ance (DI). Taxes for DI are 0.9 percent, or 14.5 percent SS taxes.

  13. comment number 13 by: Arne

    DI is 14.5 percent of SS.

  14. comment number 14 by: Illaim

    No need to get deep to answer this question, because the answer can easily be found within the reality of the average Americans individualistic views .

    The term entitlement automatically sends people who view it negatively to the word “entitled” which instantly conjures up images of lazy people looking for the proverbial hand out.

    I have no problem with social programs, and think while they shouldn’t be on a European level (they are starting to see problems with those themselves now) they should be strengthened.

    That being said, I have nothing but disdain for the word “entitlement” for it does a disservice to the programs it represents every time it is mentioned.

  15. comment number 15 by: ds

    Clearly the word ‘entitlement’ is a pejorative term. Like the previous commenter said, it is used to conjure an image of lazy people who feel entitled to government handouts. The associations fighting to dismantle the social safety net under the banner of ‘fiscal reform’ know this and that is why they use this language. I cannot believe that you seriously had no idea and that your language was purely neutral.

    You do not hear people from the concord coalition using terms such as ’social safety net’, ‘care for the elderly and disabled’. They never use terms which describe what these programs actually provide, because they do not want listeners to think about tradeoffs and the fact that, in reality, ‘fiscal reform’ will result in a lower provision of care and benefits for our nation’s poor, elderly, and disabled. Calling SS/Medicare etc. ‘entitlement programs’ and framing the debate as a fiscal/budget issue helps to position the deficit hawk agenda in a more positive light.

    But again, there is no way that you did not know this.

  16. comment number 16 by: AMTbuff

    If one wants to engage the euphemism treadmill, step one is to identify the new word. Step two is to popularize it.

    What would be the best word to express the nature of these programs? Not safety net or security or welfare, because SS and Medicare are paid out to the rich. The meaning must include the fact that these programs are on autopilot. They are durable provisions not depending on the Congress to act each year. Structural transfer programs? That’s a mouthful compared to “entitlements”.

    Incidentally, the word “welfare” is a relatively recent victim of the euphemism treadmill. It was a word with favorable connotations until it was enlisted to describe government assistance.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the word “entitlement” was chosen by people who wanted its connotation to be positive. According to the euphemism treadmill principle, this never works.

  17. comment number 17 by: Tracey

    How about “protection” programs instead of “entitlement” programs?

  18. comment number 18 by: Arne

    “People lump them together because they have a shared characteristic: They are promises that the government cannot afford to keep over the coming decades.”
    But this does not apply to Social Security, so lumping them as such is wrong. SS is not authorized to pay out more than it takes in, so it certainly can afford to keep its promises. The fact that some people are ignorant of what is actually promised does not make it true.
    It is also worth noting that choosing to adjust what SS takes in so that it can continue to increase benefits as standards of living increase is not particularly onerous. It would actually require increases less than the expected number of years in retirement (each as a percentage).
    Medicare’s issues are not so simple and so they should not be lumped together.

  19. comment number 19 by: SteveinCH


    You’re incorrect. SS can pay out more than it takes in. In point of fact, it is doing so this year. I think entitlements refer to the nature of the program and not the solvency. After all, a program isn’t solvent or not, the government is (or in this case is heading for is not)

  20. comment number 20 by: Arne

    I guess defining the time period and what “takes in” means are important.

    SS has taken in $2.1T extra, so it will be quite a while before it would fail to meet people’s expectations. It also takes in interest, so even on a yearly basis it is still taking in more.. At some point in the future, it will have negative yearly flow, but that is how it is supposed to work.

    Medicare has a portion that works that way, but not generally, so lumping them together when talking about what we should do is wrong.