CONTENT WARNING: This blog post contains explicit language that may be considered offensive. Reader discretion is advised.
We know, we know. It’s an upsetting word, but it’s what the federal government officially uses to describe our benefits–like it or not.
But despite just being a simple word the government uses to describe a set of mandatory spending programs, in terms of starting fights, it might be second only to saying “calm down” to someone who’s really, really aggravated (never do that, by the way).
In fact, it’s a problem our supporters have brought up time and time again: stop calling my earned benefits an entitlement.
The issue lies with a dual meaning associated with the word: the literary textbook definition of “entitlement” and the cultural understanding of what it means to be “entitled.”
It’s the first definition that leads our government to call our earned benefits–along with several other federal benefit programs–entitlement programs.
Most dictionaries will loosely define “entitlement” as the state of having a right to something or something to which someone has a right. Free of cultural connotations, this would seem to describe a program like Social Security very accurately.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any retiree who doesn’t believe 100% that he has a right to his benefits after an entire working life of contributions. I fulfilled my contributory obligation through the payroll tax, therefore I am entitled to the benefits those contributions afford me. ‘Nough said.
If this was the only meaning of the word “entitled,” there would be no problem flinging this word around to describe Social Security. But it isn’t. And those using it are often very aware of that fact.
These days when we talk about “entitlement” we often mean something beyond simply having a right to something. Usually the implication is the person feeling entitled didn’t earn or doesn’t deserve that to which he feels entitled. The invocation is negative, more closely channeling a bratty kid expecting allowance than a retiree collecting the retirement benefits they’ve earned.
When many seniors hear “entitlement,” they feel as if their Social Security is being treated like a handout–the exact opposite of what Social Security was intended to be.
To make matters worse, legislators and pundits readily harness this negative meaning to sway public opinion. If your goal was to convince the public to look the other way while you spent Social Security funds and cut benefits, would you call it “social insurance” or would you use the word “entitlement?”
But the key here is not to allow weasel-y usage of this word to cloud your perception. Make no mistake: Social Security IS a federal entitlement.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Entitlement programs fall into one of two categories: non-contributory and contributory.
A non-contributory program is a federal benefit one doesn’t have to pay into regularly to receive, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). These are what we would think of as welfare programs.
Contributory programs, on the other hand, require an individual to make contributions in order to be eligible for benefits. This class of entitlements includes Social Security and Medicare.
While welfare and Social Security are both referred to as entitlements, they are fundamentally different. One is non-contributory and the other is contributory. The two can only be conflated in the sense that these are non-discretionary spending programs and they are benefits to which eligible citizens are entitled by law.
In other words, eligible Americans have a right to receive these benefits. This is especially true in the case of contributory entitlements–workers paid for them. As a matter of fact, our Social Security was designed with this idea in mind. We are supposed to feel pride and ownership when it comes to our Social Security BECAUSE we paid for them.
So unless someone is planning to never retire or never collect his benefits, no politician’s sneaky use of the world “entitlement” should get anyone’s feet all tangled up. Every one of us knows the Social Security seniors receive was built up over a lifetime of their hard work and faithful contributions.
It isn’t a gift. It isn’t a reward. And it certainly isn’t an undeserved handout. No one expecting to file for his own benefits one day could ever believe that.
So when anyone uses the term “entitlement” to refer to your hard-earned Social Security benefits, acknowledge the intention with which it’s being used, but don’t allow the implication to get you turned around.
Social Security IS an entitlement. Because as a worker, you earned it. And as a retiree, you have a RIGHT to what you’ve earned.