“Entitlement” often refers to Social Security and Medicare, but critics argue that’s the wrong way to describe it. Many Americans take to social media saying they’ve paid into the system their entire careers, and thus, the benefit they will receive belongs to them. And they’re right—which is a big part of the reason they’re called entitlements, experts say, because recipients are indeed entitled to them.
The term entitlement has developed a negative connotation, said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, which advocates for expanding the program. “Focus groups have found when you ask people to name entitlements, they’ll focus on welfare, and when they’re told Social Security [is an entitlement program], they get angry because of course Social Security is an earned benefit,” she said. The idea of being “entitled” has over time become associated with getting something one doesn’t deserve. And it’s become political.
“Entitlement programs,” in government budgeting speak, are the ones that the country deems mandatory spending—like Social Security and Medicare. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is another example, said Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That contrasts with discretionary spending, where—also in government budgeting terms—when the funding runs out, there’s no more in benefits to give, and individuals are placed on a waiting list. Examples include housing vouchers and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
The terminology for Social Security may have become politically charged, but, ultimately, it’s something Americans worked for, Romig said. “It’s an earned benefit,” she said. “The benefit is yours.”
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