Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What's an entitlement?

Journalists and people involved in politics often talk about "entitlement programs," or just "entitlements," meaning programs for which people who meet certain criteria have a legal right to benefits.  In a legal sense, "entitlement" is a synonym for "right," but in ordinary language, it tends to have a negative implication.  Someone who stands up for their rights is admirable; someone with a sense of entitlement is not.  The everyday meaning seems to be along the lines of "thinking you should get something without having to earn it." 

So I wonder how the ordinary public understands the talk of curbing the growth of "entitlement programs."  Unfortunately, recent surveys don't shed much light on this, but back in 1994 an NBC/Wall Street Journal Survey asked "Would you favor or oppose cutting spending on government entitlement programs in order to reduce the federal budget deficit?"  61% were in favor, 25% opposed, 7% said that it depends, and  7% were not sure.  But only half of the people were asked that question--the other half (randomly chosen) were asked"Would you favor or oppose cutting spending on such government programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and farm subsidies in order to reduce the federal budget deficit?" Only 23% were in favor, 66% were opposed, 8% said it depends, and 3% weren't sure.  The point of the comparison is that the programs mentioned are entitlement programs.  But apparently most people don't know that. 

You could regard this as a case of public ignorance or inconsistency, but I think the fault is with the insiders who keep using the technical term rather than trying to communicate in language that people will understand. 

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