Is 'Entitlements' A Dirty Word?

As the debt ceiling debate roared on this summer, we heard about "entitlement programs" over and over again in the news. Even in the week and a half since Congress reached a deal, NPR hosts, correspondents and on-air guests have used the term "entitlement" or "entitlements" 24 times referring to the governmental programs.

One listener's response shows the complicated feelings and meanings associated with entitlements.

Thomas Wright of Chicago, IL, thought Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should not be grouped under the label "entitlement."

"A pension is not something you are entitled to, it is something that belongs to you," Wright wrote. "The same applies to insurance policies, which include Medicare. Medicaid could be fairly called an entitlement. But it is prejudicial to the argument when the larger programs are referred to as something that sounds undeserved."

"Isn't it time for NPR to stop referring to medicare and social security as 'entitlements'?" asked Dorothy Slater, from Denver, CO.

"I have paid into [Social Security] for over 60 years and think I am 'entitled' to my measly $1,027 a month - I have also paid into medicare for as long as it has existed and probably deserve the 'entitlement' of a yearly physical and the occasional x-ray. There is never any mention of the 'entitlements' given to corporations due to corporate welfare."

We asked Ron Elving, supervising senior editor on NPR's Washington Desk, to explain his department's approach to entitlements.

The term entitlements is used in somewhat different ways by different people, with overlapping meanings. The basic difference is in the breadth of application.

Basically, it's another way of referring to what budget folks call 'mandatory spending' to distinguish it from 'discretionary spending.'

It's a little misleading because it suggests Congress has no control over it all, which of course it ultimately does.

'Entitlements' are government checks people receive because they are 'entitled' to them by law. Thus Social Security and Medicare are called entitlements, and they are the largest programs in the category. When people refer in passing to 'reforming entitlements' they are usually talking about these two programs. And of course, tens of millions feel especially 'entitled' to these payments because they have paid into the funds throughout their working lives.

But people with a claim on pensions from the federal government (retired workers, military personnel) also consider themselves entitled to their checks, and these payments are also sometimes called entitlements.

I don't think there is a universally agreed upon set of parameters.

From a daily journalistic standpoint, it is best to say 'entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare' when discussing federal spending. That lets people know what people are talking about in the actualities they hear. It also lends some concrete sense of what these programs are – and that often helps defuse the sense of their being 'politically charged.'

And, by the way, 'entitlement reform' is another one of those euphemisms we should avoid because it conveys the subtle judgment that entitlements need reforming (which not everyone agrees they do).

Elving's explanation seems pretty logical and clear to me, but I sense that some listeners who object to the term think it has taken on a negative connotation as something undeserved or optional. I'm not sure that the term has widely taken on such meanings, but want to hear from you what you think.

Andrew Maddocks contributed to this post.

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