What we mean by 'entitlement'? Well, that depends...

Reporters, researchers and other members of the general public buy copies of the Obama Administration's proposed FY 2014 federal budget at the Government Printing Office Book Store April 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The word entitlement is all over the place in Washington these days. It pops up 11 times in the House Republican's budget plan, as the document outlines an approach to "fix our entitlements," and "help check Congressional appetite to create costly open-ended entitlement programs."

The e-word also shows up three times in President Barack Obama's budget, mostly in calls for "entitlement reforms." 

Yet, none of those documents include a definition of the word. So, what does the word entitlement really mean?

The word is often used as a synonym for social assistance programs for "the old, the sick and the poor," says political scientist Norman Ornstein, co-author of "Debt and Taxes," which includes a history of the word entitlement and its evolution. But its technical definition is a bit more expansive. 

It first showed up on the official scene in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974, says Ornstein. Translated loosely from the Act's budget wonkese, an entitlement was defined as a payment to those "who meet the lawful requirements, without the need for a specific appropriation," as Hendrik Hertzberg explained in a recent New Yorker article.

However, as Ornstein points out, "the critical issue here is not what the formal definition of entitlement is, it's how the word is used."

To get a sense of how the word is used, I went out on to the street to ask passers-by what they meant when they used the word entitlement.

"It's almost like a right," one college student told me.

"You did something in order to get it," explained a retired teacher.

"It's something you've earned," added a clerk at Los Angeles City Hall. 

Of course, entitlement can also mean almost exactly the opposite. 

"Something you get without actually maybe working for it," is how one woman described it.

I asked a taxi-driver to use it in a sentence and he offered this one, with a wagging finger: "Oh, you just feel like you're so entitled."

A consultant in a suit laughed at my question and said, "My girlfriend. She has a sense of entitlement for everything." 

So, you see the mixed messaging. And those conflicting meanings actually echo a major philosophical debate, says Ornstein, "about what government should be doing and what people are entitled to from government."

That debate can get muddied by all those different meanings of the word entitlement. Take Social Security, for example. Senior Citizens often defend the program because they say they've "earned it."

As economist Richard Burkhauser of Cornell, reminds his students, "when they go home for Christmas and their grandparents say, 'look all we're doing is getting what we paid in to the system,' actually that's not true. The first generation of Social Security recipients got way more in benefits than they ever paid in to the system."

For many seniors, that is still the case. 

On the other hand, Ornstein points out programs that target the poor, which are often seen as government "hand outs," have helped plenty of people who paid taxes, and therefore into the system that funds government benefits.

"We have a world now where people go in and out of work," Ornstein says. "You don't have a group of poeple sitting back and never having worked getting benefits while the working population pays."

As we debate entitlement spending, of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But first we might want to figure out which sense of entitlement we're even talking about. 

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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