'Entitlement' Is Not A Dirty Word

There's a "Doctor Who" episode, in the first series of the revival, that takes place during World War II. And "no spoilers" for those who have never seen it, but it ends with the Ninth Doctor telling the British people, "You lot! Lots to do. Save the world. Beat the Germans. And don't forget the welfare state!"

On British TV, people are always praising the welfare state, and despite my own rather socialist bent and desire for Americans to have all of those things, it's always a bit of a shock to the system. Being an American, I'm just so used to hearing people use the term "welfare state" in a derogatory manner, to describe some state of endless and unknown horrors brought about by people becoming desperately spoiled and lazy and unable to fend for themselves as a result of having healthcare, food and shelter.

This weekend, I noticed a tweet from Occupy Democrats guy Peter Morely repeating a common center-left maxim: "Social Security and Medicare are NOT 'Entitlements'! We PAID for them." It got over 4,000 likes. It probably has more now. We can assume this was in response to Lindsey Graham's comments from last weekend about how, if Republicans take over in November, "entitlement reform" — by which he means cutting Social Security and Medicare — would be a major priority.

It's likely that the reason he tweeted this, the reason others have said it before him, is because the word "entitlement," like welfare, has come to be a dirty word. It's not something "good people" get, just bad people who supposedly don't want to work and would prefer instead to live lavishly on their $121 a month in SNAP benefits. We've all heard about those bad people. Wouldn't want to be one of them!

But here's the thing: Social Security and Medicare are absolutely "entitlements." They are things we are entitled to, things owed to us as American citizens. If you pay for something, you are entitled to it. People just don't like the term "entitlements" because it's been turned into a dirty word, invoking the image of an impoverished Veruca Salt demanding her Oompa Loompa now, or the sort of definitely real people Louie Gohmert sees at the grocery store buying king crab legs with food stamps. When we hear the word we don't think of its actual definition, of people having the right to have or do something, but rather we think of how we contemptuously call people "entitled" for behaving as if they have rights when they do not.

This is the problem with letting the GOP dictate what words mean.

The scary thing is that this works. Americans have long been willing to put up with practically any indignity, reject any good idea that may improve their life, or forfeit things they are entitled to, just so no one thinks they are lazy or spoiled or of bad character. This gets used as a cudgel any time we want to keep a right or an entitlement, or any time we want to do anything to make it a little easier for people to live. Americans are willing to forfeit paid vacation days in order to look like hard workers (thereby creating a culture where taking those days is seen as a lazy, ungrateful thing to do). We're willing to forfeit legal representation so the police think we're innocent (an obviously terrible idea that never works out). We're willing to accept a lot of bad in order to cling to the idea that rejecting things we are entitled to makes us "good."

It seems incredible this would be such a major concern in a country in which 43 percent of households cannot afford basic necessities like "housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone," and where one third are drowning in medical debt. It's even more incredible when you consider that, unlike nearly every other country on earth, we don't have universal healthcare; we have an incredibly expensive higher education system and a job market that requires at least a bachelor's degree to hope to make a living wage; we don't have guaranteed paid vacation/sick days; and we can be fired from our jobs for no good reason.

We are in no danger of being "spoiled" any time soon. (At least outside of those born into wealth, although one seems to have much of a problem with them.) We are in no danger of being the wrong kind of "entitled" anytime soon. We have tough-loved ourselves to death, in some cases literally. We have stigmatized words like "entitlement" and "welfare" to our own detriment. If we want to improve things for ourselves, or at least not make anything worse, we have to stop being suckers and going along with narratives that hurt us and instead fight for the things to which we are, yes, entitled.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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