I came across a 2013 article from the New York Times old Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, about the paper’s use of the word “entitlements” to describe Social Security, Medicare, and other federal “outlays,” to use the more technical language that once drove coverage of tax policy. Sullivan agreed with a reader that “entitlements” is a partisan, sneering term for federal retirement benefits. It suggests that beneficiaries are claiming an unearned privilege.
So I looked into the word’s history in the New York Times, and it may not surprise you to learn when “entitlements” entered the political lexicon.
The rise of “entitlements” is linked directly to tax cuts, particularly the question of how to finance them in the first years of the Reagan Administration. In a 1981 “fact sheet” on the Reagan administration’s tax cuts and spending cuts “to reduce the deficit,” the president proposed the “first comprehensive proposal in more than a decade to overhaul the nation’s overgrown $350 billion entitlements system,” as his predecessors had also tried to do. “Entitlements” began to creep into newspaper coverage in the late 1970s, replacing other descriptives for federal programs like social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and unemployment insurance. These were variously known as “outlays,” “benefits,” “relief,” or “welfare.” The present-day separation of Social Security and Medicare from food stamps and other welfare programs–as more virtuous or untouchable–is a consequence of the Reaganites’ eventual victory in vilifying most worker benefits as immoral, and the enduring popularity of what little we have left.
Reading newspaper coverage of Social Security in the late 1970s and early 1980s will give you as sense of deja vu. For example, the same fears of an impending collapse of Social Security under the burden of an aging population drove a 1979 New York Times editorial that suggested “adjusting benefits to realistic levels” by taxing benefits or raising the retirement age. Much of this sounds like it could come from a Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday, with one exception: the Times’ poignant prediction that “medical insurance for the elderly will probably be integrated into a broad-based national health insurance effort within a decade [lol].”
In a March 24, 1981 article entitled “Reagan’s Thesis: Issue is Entitlement,” Reagan’s domestic policy advisor, Martin Anderson, told a parable about his father, a milkman during the Depression. One family cut their milk order when the father lost his job; The milkman extended them credit. Another hard-up family, though, insisted they get the same amount of milk even though they couldn’t pay for it. And the second family, says Anderson, is the problem with United States in 1981: too many people “demand that they have a right to a certain amount of income or services.” Another Reagan official added: “The idea…that almost every service that someone might need in life ought to be provided, financed by the Government as a matter of basic rights, is wrong.” The officials conceded that “social safety net” or a “floor” between old people and misery might be necessary.
At the time, though, “entitlements” still had two, contradictory meanings. On the one hand, they were the unearned privilege of the lazy and mollycoddled. Or, they were almost the opposite: the material basis of Social Security benefits. They return wages that one has earned, in a program of redistributing (some) wealth to those who produced it. They’re called “entitlements” because you are in fact entitled to dignity and health.
Two years earlier, a reporter interviewed Italian-American retirees in Brooklyn about “welfare,” and Jean Scalabrino, said “I try to convince my friends that things like Social Security and food stamps are rightfully theirs, but they feel funny about it.” A worker at a Borough Park Senior Center made the same point, using the word “entitlements” proudly: as he said, his group tried to encourage proud seniors to seek out federal benefits because “the various services are entitlements–not charity–that they have paid for.”
On Jan. 17, 1982, a milestone: in an op-ed entitled “No More Free Lunch for the Middle Class,” Peter Peterson (his real name), chairman of the board of Lehman Brothers (RIP) makes the first use of the phrase “entitlement reform” in the newspaper. Using the now-familiar analogy of national and family budgets, Peterson wrote, “A nation that…consumes almost all that it earns is choosing instant gratification at the cost of tomorrow’s prosperity.” Think about the irony of Lehman Brothers’ chairman making a moral claim about social welfare as an irresponsible investment.
Peterson’s accusation of “instant gratification” is part of the stigma that Jean Scalabrino’s friends were so ashamed of in accepting relief: “burgeoning entitlements” boosted by an elderly population that insists on surviving. The rhetoric in Peterson’s article is so familiar: a looming generational crisis and a disaster to come, driven by our own profligacy and “a rising sun in the East”–it was Japan then–and “a sense of twilight in the West.” “To give the American economy fresh hope,” Peterson concluded, “we must begin shifting resources massively from Government-mediated consumption to productive, long-term investment in business plant, equipment and innovation.”
Peter Peterson, not Jean Scalabrino, won the rhetorical war here. Entitlement shows up in straight news pieces to describe what event he Times once called “outlays,” with that sneering sense of moral indignation that many readers now hear. “Entitlement” is charity, it is insupportable, it is unproductive, it is elderly–it’s everything that “innovation” isn’t.
Obviously, finding new synonyms won’t change this outcome by itself, but entitlement’s slow creep into mainstream policy discourse has been a victory in the long-term ideological warfare waged by the right against labor and the very idea of a social contract. And it shows how language is a weapon in crafting a class hegemony, by which a partisan claim comes to infiltrate our “common sense.” The “safety net” is no better, presuming as it does a last-resort charity for the otherwise incapable. What word–“federal retirement benefits,” which Sullivan suggests, lacks the simplicity of “entitlements”–would capture the meaning of “returning wealth to those who produced it, and to whom it rightfully belongs”?