What Exactly Is an 'Entitlement'?

Control the language and you control the debate. Who said that? George Orwell? Saul Alinsky? Karl Marx? Groucho Marx? Me? Anyway, I was reminded of the importance of language by a comment to a recent article of mine from one “Mike 3/505.” Mike began his comment by quoting my second sentence, which he put in italics thus: “So just when they were borrowing money like never before, Democrats passed the biggest entitlement in decades.” Mike then responded:

Stop! Stop this right now! We will never win this argument if we keep promoting falsehoods such as the line above. ObamaCare is not an entitlement. Entitlements are things you have ownership of... things you have title to... which is where the word comes from.

Mike has a problem with the word “entitlement.” I do too, for I also wrote: “The whole idea of entitlements needs to be revisited.” It’s interesting that someone responded to an article that dealt, in part, with opacity by launching a comment about the meaning of a word that should be pretty clear, as in not opaque. So let’s explore this crazy word and how it’s used.

To begin with, the term “entitlement” does not appear in the original Constitution, nor does it appear in any of the 27 amendments. There is no entry for “entitlement” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009). Nor is there an entry in Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (2011). However, at the online American Heritage Dictionary, the entry for “entitlement” has this: “3. 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).”

In the entry for “entitlement” at the online Oxford English Dictionary, we read in its section for COMPOUNDS: “entitlement programme  n. chiefly U.S. a government programme which provides services or financial benefits to any individual, institution, etc., meeting certain eligibility requirements.” One does so wish that the Brits would learn to spell “program,” but they do have some telling examples for “entitlement programme”:

1956  Newport (Rhode Island) Daily News 29 May 1/8 If the U.S. Office of Education interprets this law in this manner, it would mean a cut of an additional $20,000 from the entitlement program.

1973  Hartford (Connecticut) Courant 23 Dec. 15 a/5 What I mean by noncontrollables are those programs that are fixed by prior legislation. Individual entitlement programs are the biggest portion of that -- Social Security, medicare, medicaid.. and the like.

2003  D.S. Ippolito Why Budgets Matter 187 By the 1960s, Social Security was by far the largest federal entitlement program, accounting for approximately one-half of all payments for individuals.

What we see in the 1973 example is that soon after it became law, Medicaid was already thought of as an entitlement, just like Social Security. The quote is of Deputy Budget Director Frederic V. Malek from an Associated Press interview. Besides the Courant, the AP interview also appeared the same day in The Ledger and was headlined “Federal Spending Will Increase.”

So 42 years ago our word “entitlement” was used by the feds to refer to rather different programs; from straight-up welfare to “earned” pensions. And the OED truncated Malek’s list of “noncontrollables,” which also listed “public assistance, veterans benefits, unemployment benefits, civil service retirements benefits and the like.” More from Mike the commenter:

Means tested programs, like MedicAid, SNAP, and others, are charity, but by no means are they entitlements. Neither is ObamaCare. When we define it as one, we end up arguing with the liberals on their (false) terms.

I like that last sentence, (it inspired the opening line today). But Medicaid isn’t charity, it is welfare. The government does not give out charity, people do that, and they do so voluntarily. ObamaCare is an ungodly amalgam of welfare for some and mandates for others. The Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies are the welfare, and the mandates are the requirement to own health insurance and to pay for the healthcare of those on welfare. So ObamaCare is a “mixed” program; it is partly entitlement, partly not.

Why ‘entitlement’ programs aren’t really entitlements” is an excellent little article by Jim Huffman that appeared at the Daily Caller on Jan. 21, 2013. Mr. Huffman is on the faculty of Lewis & Clark Law School and has been associated with the Hoover Institution:

Perhaps it would help if we stopped calling these federally financed benefits “entitlements.” […]

In any legal sense of the term, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are not entitlements. Unlike public employee pensions, which are contractual obligations now threatening to bankrupt state and local governments, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits can be modified, or even eliminated, by a majority vote of both houses of Congress along with the president’s signature. They are benefits, not entitlements. […]

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid provide important benefits for millions of Americans. Because they are important, and in many cases essential, we should stop referring to them as entitlements and acknowledge that they are benefits dependent on the long-term fiscal soundness of our federal government.

Huffman cites Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), but he could also have cited an earlier case. For even if one pays the maximum in payroll taxes for all one’s working years, one does not “own” one’s Social Security benefits. That was settled by the Supreme Court back in 1960 in Flemming v. Nestor.

There is no entitlement to federal entitlements; there’s no enforceable right to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and ObamaCare subsidies. The feds have the power to summarily end those programs whenever they choose, leaving the folks who’ve paid for them with no recourse.

“Entitlement,” in current American English usage, is a loose, catchall term that encompasses any kind of benefit payment by the government to an individual, regardless of whether the benefit is means-tested or not, “earned” or not. The term probably came about because Democrats wanted folks to think they were entitled to their Big Government freebies; they wanted the citizenry to think they were owed their monthly checks.

“Entitlement” is a weasel word. Folks have no property right to their monthly government benefit checks. This was settled years ago by the Supreme Court. When Democrats use “entitlement,” what they’re trying to convey is that their programs are set in stone, can never be touched, the money must be spent, and don’t even think about changing their systems. (That’s a strange position from the party that runs on Change.)

It can be tedious to get into debates about semantics, especially when the overriding issue with “entitlements” is affordability. It’s instructive to read the 1973 AP interview of Fred Malek. Here’s the language immediately preceding the OED quote from the interview:

We are going to have about $273 billion in expenditures in fiscal 1974. We’ve got built in, before we or Congress get a chance to work on the discretionary programs, about $25 billion increment in noncontrollables.

Noncontrollables? The entitlements referred to are uncontrollable only because Congress chose for them to be uncontrollable. But if Congress is ever to get any control of the budget, they must address the uncontrollable, automatic, “mandatory,” part of their spending: i.e. the entitlements.

In any event, I do think I should to be cut some slack for my use of the word “entitlement,” but I wouldn’t say I’m entitled to it.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. 

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