entitlements

When one hears of the word “entitlements,” the first image in their mind usually isn’t a retiree getting the benefits they paid for their entire life.

Even though it’s true that when money is taken out of every paycheck you’ve earned — from your first summer job in high school to your last paycheck before retirement — in order to pay for Social Security and Medicare that you’re entitled to those benefits, the word “entitlement” reeks of a spoiled 16-year-old boy dragging his rich daddy to the BMW lot to pick out the birthday present he’ll likely crash within a year.

entitlements
Data by the Social Security Administration (Chart by The Motley Fool)

Before Kevin Spacey was fired from the Netflix show House of Cards after Broadway star Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of sexually pursuing him when he was a teenager, Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, was famous for the line, “you are entitled to nothing” in a speech defending cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This line perfectly sums up how the word “entitlements” has become a pejorative used by those who seek to drastically cut back or end those programs.

This is why it’s so disappointing to see so many media outlets recklessly using the word “entitlements” to describe Social Security in Medicare in Monday’s stories about President Trump’s proposed budget cuts. The word has been used in headlines and lede paragraphs in a variety of various well-intentioned media outlets from inside-the-beltway news site Axios — founded by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico — to the progressive-leaning Raw Story, to establishment outlets like NBC News and the New York Times.

Former New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse took his old employer to task over its use of the term “entitlements” in its story on the Trump budget, pointing out how the Times‘ own public editor said the use of the word to describe Social Security and Medicare was inappropriate in a 2013 post (the Times has since eliminated its public editor position).

“Social Security is a viable fund; each person who receives benefits has contributed to that fund throughout their working life. Moreover, if a person is self employed the annual contribution is doubled,” wrote New York Times reader Judith Abrams in a complaint to the paper’s editors. “Thus, to denominate such a program as an ‘entitlement’ is false.”

The paper quoted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Leonhardt to respond to Abrams. He not only agreed with her assessment of the word, but suggested the paper use a different term entirely to describe those specific social safety net programs.

“On the one hand, it has a certain technical accuracy. It conveys that people are entitled to receive these benefits regardless of what money the government allocates for them in any given year. On the other hand, I understand why some readers find it demeaning. I tend to steer clear of it when possible partly because of its vagueness. ‘Federal retirement benefits’ is a more telling term.”

The far right has historically been much smarter in their use of words as ideological framework. In the 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff points out how conservatives are able to sum up their philosophy in easy-to-remember buzzwords like “national security” and “family values,” while liberals stumble over clumsy verbiage in attempting to define themselves to voters. Lakoff theorized that the reason conservatives have had so much success electorally despite their actual policies not polling well with a majority of the voting public is due to their mastery of ideological framing — the manipulation of certain words to elicit an emotional response from voters.

This remains true as we saw in the recent tax debate, in which Republicans were successful in scaling back the estate tax, which they called the “death tax,” even though the tax is only paid by the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans who pass on their estates after they die. Just like the word “entitlements,” the phrase is technically accurate as it refers to a tax paid after death. But conservatives know the two words “death” and “tax” are not looked upon favorably by most Americans, thus explaining their reliance on the phrase in their efforts to get rid of it. Ironically, the wealthy heirs who are subject to the estate tax by receiving millions of dollars that they didn’t personally earn are likely what most Americans would define as “entitled.”

While David Leonhardt and the New York Times’ public editor suggest the phrase “federal retirement benefits” to describe Social Security and Medicare rather than the pejorative “entitlements,” Grit Post’s editorial policy is to refer to these programs as “earned benefits,” as they are benefits earned through a lifetime of payroll taxes taken out of workers’ paychecks. We encourage all media outlets to be smarter in their use of words and not rely on conservative framing to describe programs that conservatives want to cut back or eliminate.

 

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