Why is 'entitlement' a dirty word?

Call entitlements what you like. The US isn't charging enough for membership for this rewards program.

Nati Harnik/AP/File
A woman reacts at a Tea Party rally in Lincoln, Neb., in April, where Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman told activists he shares some of their goals, including limited government, controlled spending, and lower taxes. Does lower spending include cuts in entitlements like Social Security?

On the San Francisco public radio show I did yesterday, the host kept informing me that she was getting many calls and emails (and maybe “tweets”) complaining about my use of the word “entitlements” when I referred to the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.

No one actually explained to me why they found the word offensive, but one hint I got was the one caller who suggested that my organization was part of a “libertarian” effort to end/dismantle/destroy Social Security. (I was not given the opportunity nor had enough time to explain that our goals are precisely the opposite; if someone like Erskine Bowles, a co-chair of the President’s fiscal commission, compares the fiscal unsustainability of the federal budget to a “cancer,” it is because they want to get rid of the cancer, not let it kill the patient.)

So I started wondering why the term “entitlement” was viewed with such hostility as a value-laden, judgment-laden term. I looked up “entitlement” on dictionary.com and found these definitions:

From the Random House dictionary:

The right to guaranteed benefits under a government program, as Social Security or unemployment compensation.

From the American Heritage dictionary:

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).

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary of law:

A government program that provides benefits to members of a group that has a statutory entitlement; also : the benefits distributed by such a program.

So I still don’t “get” what’s so bad about the term, but I guess in a time when even the word “taxes” is a “dirty” word (and “rationing” a nasty one as well), the ugliness of the word is in the ear of the listener, and listeners often listen through their ideological ear plugs (while bound in their ideological straitjackets).

What would readers suggest is a better label for these government programs? How about something like my AmEx card uses for their bonus points program: “Membership Rewards”? (Does that sound more deserving?) Regardless (and carrying this analogy a little further), it’s still the case that we are not charging enough in membership fees to cover the cost of our (federal) “rewards” program. If I were to suggest charging higher fees (don’t say “taxes”) or reducing the generosity of the rewards (don’t say “entitlements”) or some combination of both, it’s not to suggest we get rid of the rewards program altogether, but because I like the rewards program and don’t want it to go away.

Your ideas?

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