Of late, I’ve noticed a strong tendency to shy away from calling things like Social Security ‘entitlement programmes,’ and I’ve puzzled as to why. I suspect some of it has to do with a very specifically USian attitude about ‘entitlement,’ and the idea that people have to earn things, rather than being automatically entitled to them, but there’s something deeper going on here too. It’s yet another case of an instance in which social conservatives have pushed at language and liberals have followed, unwittingly undermining their own cause in the process. This kind of brilliant social manipulation is something that liberals don’t seem very good at, which is a pity, because the ability to shape public thinking through language is incredibly valuable.
You see, the thing about entitlement programmes, and why I refer to them as such, is that people are entitled to them. These programmes have been set up through government policy and they are administered by the government specifically for the benefit of citizens; they are available for public use and this is their intended purpose. What’s more, people actively contribute to these programmes, and thus are entitled to reap the benefits of their contributions when they need assistance. Just as you’re entitled to be able to access the contents of your bank account when you need to. It’s your money. You earned it.
My father collects a check from Social Security every month because he paid into the Social Security fund. He’s entitled to that money; the government set up a programme specifically intended to provide support to people over a certain age, funds were deducted from his wages to pay for that programme, and now that he’s reached that age, he can access the programme. Likewise, people on unemployment or temporary disability are entitled to the funds available through programmes they, and employers, paid into.
It’s okay to call these things entitlements because that is what they are, and to suggest otherwise is to undermine the fundamental human rights issues behind entitlement programmes. The whole idea here is that we should recognise the fundamental humanity of all residents, and by extension, the potential need for assistance that is present in all of us. Any of us, at any time, could find ourselves needing help through the government, whether it be monetary or otherwise. Throughout our lives, we participate in the systems that create and administer these programmes; this is part of our role as residents of the US. Consequently, they should be accessible when we need them.
There is nothing radical about this. This shouldn’t be particularly shocking or astounding news. Yet, the right has definitely pushed the idea that no one is entitled to anything in the US, building on the bootstraps idea and pushing the idea that all benefits must be earned. In this case, liberals should be able to directly challenge the reasoning, because benefits from entitlement programmes actually are earned; I’m paying into Social Security right now, for example, with money that I earned, and that’s money I expect to see back if I reach the retirement age, because that’s how this works. In a very simple sense, conservatives shouldn’t be arguing against entitlement programmes on the basis that they represent unearned benefits, because they don’t.
They can claim that such systems should be privatised, that the government is not the best administrator of such programmes, and while I disagree with that logic, I can understand where the origins of the argument lie and what kinds of supporting statements one could bring into the discussion. But calling programmes like disability unearned is ludicrous, because recipients do earn them. That includes, yes, people who haven’t directly paid into the system, such as people born with physical disabilities who require assistance from an early age and never work during their natural lives.
Contributing can take many forms, and these programmes are not easy as pie to apply for, or to live on. People must demonstrate need, and often experience hardship on benefits that are insufficient for their needs, paired with disincentives to supplement their income. Disabled people, for example, risk losing their benefits if they find part-time work, even if they want to work. Since the cost of funding their care would be too expensive to bear on the wages they could earn, they’re forced into unemployment. People receiving benefits because they’re temporarily out of work or can’t work for whatever reason are earning those benefits through miles of paperwork, interviews, participation in mandatory programmes, and, yes, through living their own lives.
I believe in calling a system what it is, and in accurately naming and describing things to make meaning clear. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that people are entitled to benefits, and liberals need to break out of that mindset; many seem to secretly harbor the same bootstrapping ideas as their conservative counterparts, and some are happily willing to admit it. Until those attitudes shift, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between liberal and conservative arguments on benefits programmes administered by the government, because liberals are using the same kind of language conservatives do, and they’re advancing the same ideas.
People deserve the benefits they earned, whether by paying for them directly or following the strict regulations of the system used to allocate benefits. And liberals shouldn’t be afraid to discuss such programmes in language that actively describes their nature and purpose.