Blog Post

When an Entitlement Is Not an Entitlement

The day that Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican majority leader, announced that cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would have to be made because they were a drain on the budget, ”the real drivers of the debt,” the proliferation of doublespeak was something to behold.

Just a day after the Treasury Department reported that “the U.S. budget deficit grew to $779 billion in Donald Trump’s first full fiscal year as president, the result of the GOP’s tax cuts, bipartisan spending increases and rising interest payments on the national debt” (Dennis), McConnell argued that the debt was driven by “the three big entitlement programs that are very popular, Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid” (McConnell, quoted in Goodkind). McConnell insisted that “[i]t’s not a Republican problem. It’s a bipartisan problem: Unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.” (Goodkind).

Reframing “Entitlements” as Targets

The first issue to address is the questionable use of the word “entitlements,” made popular as a pejorative term by long-time foe of Social Security, billionaire Pete Peterson (Altman, quoted in Jackson). In government parlance, “entitlement” is synonymous with “mandatory spending,” a requirement of the government to honor funding obligations accrued in this case through the earned benefits that the American people have been paying into since the inception of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Peterson, in seeking to redefine these programs, helped to organize the Peterson-Pew Budget Reform Commission, which resulted in the publication “Red Ink Rising: A Call to Action to Stem the Federal Budget.” That report helped to popularize the meaning of “entitlement” as an undeserved government handout, subject to fraud, with unworthy people receiving something free from the government that they are not really entitled to (Altman).

The claim, then, that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are responsible for the rising debt has its roots in this framing of entitlements as unearned benefits. But as Nancy Altman, of Social Security Works, points out, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are by their very nature earned benefits. Recipients of these programs pay into them throughout their working lives. In no way do they contribute to the deficit.

Bipartisan Cover for a Republican Debacle

To argue, then, that making cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is “a bipartisan problem,” that the GOP has nothing to do with it, as McConnell insisted, is a direct falsehood. The GOP tax cut of $1.5 trillion, which was proposed and passed in Congress along party lines, along with the recent $675 billion budget for the Department of Defense, have directly contributed to the budget deficit. “Unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt” can be found in those Republicans who have doubled down on tax cuts for the wealthy and who seek to cut these popular programs that Democrats overwhelmingly support and seek to strengthen.

The Pull of Privatization

While the issues surrounding strengthening Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are undoubtedly complex, the simplicity of the funding stream that feeds these programs is clear. They do not in any way contribute to the federal government’s budget deficit. What is less than transparent are the motives for creating the specter of these programs as being on the verge of bankruptcy. As Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works and author of The Truth about Social Security notes, creating a crisis of funding “sets up this idea of what is ultimately . . . a goal of privatization, being packaged as rescuing a system that’s in crisis” (quoted in Jackson, emphasis in text).

Educating Ourselves

All of which underscores the underlying message regarding Republican plans to cut these programs: we need to educate ourselves and others about the real causes behind the blame being placed on them. The real drivers of the budget deficit can be found in irresponsible tax cuts and unfundable budget outlays.

References

Altman, N. (2018). The Truth About Social Security: The Founders’ Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies and Common Misunderstandings. Strongarm Press.

Dennis, S. T. (2018, Oct. 16). McConnell blames entitlement, not GOP, for rising debt. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/

Goodkind, N. (2018, Oct. 16). Mitch McConnell calls for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid cuts, after passing tax cuts, massive defense spending. Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/

Jackson, J. (2018, Nov. 1). “The American people overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Social Security”: CounterSpin interview with Nancy Altman on Social Security and the election. FAIR: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Retrieved from https://fair.org/

4 thoughts on “When an Entitlement Is Not an Entitlement”

  1. Excellent! I’ve long wondered about how the word “entitlement” got so twisted around in modern US political discourse. After all, according to the dictionary, “entitlement” is synonymous with “right.” People have a right to their Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — it’s something they deserve.
    It’s not often that even a billionaire can change the meaning of a word, but this is one of those rare cases. Thanks, Gerri, for that Altman ref!

    1. This “entitlement” is also often something that people have paid for. I paid into Social Security, nearly every year, from 1956 to 2006, beginning when I was 16.

  2. I think every time a Republican perverts the meaning of “entitlement” he/she should be immediately challenged (and shamed).

  3. The democrats should have responded to tax and spend Democrats with borrow and spend Republicans. The purpose of the tax cuts is to starve the government making it necessary to cut those socialistic entitlement programs. A person I met from Norway told me that the reason socialism works in Norway is that everyone gets something from it. That is exactly what the Republicans hate.

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