When referring to government programs in which Americans have a right to participate, such as Social Security and Medicare, the term “entitlement” used to mean a hard-won right of citizenship. These days, however, opponents of such programs use the word “entitlement” pejoratively in order to call these rights into question. The phrase “entitlement reform” is used to mean cuts to these programs. According to strict-father thinking, “the world doesn’t owe you a living,” so why should anyone receive money that they haven’t earned?
There’s a problem with this reasoning: it isn’t true.
For Social Security, Medicare, pensions, veterans’ benefits, and some other programs, the right to participate in these programs comes from having paid into their systems throughout our working careers or as deferred compensation. In other words, they are earned income. To cut these programs without the consent of their participants is to break the social contract. This would be morally wrong because hard-working Americans have earned these protections and have done nothing to deserve cuts to them. Also, many of us no longer could work to replace that income due to infirmity or disability, and cutting these protections would force many into undeserved poverty.
For programs into which Americans don’t pay as directly, such as SNAP (food stamps), we do contribute to them with our taxes. And even when Americans may not have paid much in income tax due to very low incomes, we do have a right to assistance from our country under the law, the teachings of Christianity and other religions, and under Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are ways that Americans show we care for each other. While we may disagree about how best to express that caring, we should care and honor the rights of every American to participate in these programs when eligible.
Instead of speaking of entitlement reform, supporters of these programs should make clear what the bland phrase “entitlement reform” obscures. Five ways to reframe it are:
- Theft of Americans’ deferred compensation
- Cuts to older Americans’ income and healthcare in retirement
- Keeping your social insurance premiums the same but cutting your future benefits (because Social Security and Medicare are insurance programs) and
- Whacking away our right to security in old age, disability, or misfortune
- A big pay cut for America
What do you think?