The Right Entitlement

The New York Times published an article over the weekend titled “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It“, which profiles several families and folks that describe themselves as conservative, the area recently helped sweep out a Democrat in favor of a tea party candidate. It is especially interesting because it strips individuals away from rhetoric or group think and confronts them on inconsistencies. This might be considered a “gotcha” style of report, only it’s not. It’s tone, sensitivity, and questions offer a personal glimpse into these folks lives (the individual vignette videos under the introduction). Everyone interviewed either used some of the government safety net or had someone in their immediate family who did, plus one guy who was adamant that he would not accept money from the government.

“Plan ahead! I don’t expect the rich to cough up the money that they work hard for, to give to to the people that are too foolish or too lazy to provide for themselves”, says Matt Anderson. This is pretty typical of a libertarian/republican line of rhetoric, perhaps it is more than a talking point for this guy. The only problem with this logic is that it assumes that the rich have worked hard and those that cannot provide for themselves are foolish and/or lazy or don’t plan. This is the essential crux of the “entitlement issue”; do people “deserve” benefits? If so, what is the criteria for deserving those benefits?

It can be pretty tough to find an elderly person in favor of cutting Social Security and Medicare no matter what political stripe. Even if you confront them with the fact that they are likely taking out of the system more than they put in, you are unlikely to find volunteers to stop receiving their Medicare benefits or Social Security checks. The truth is that you take a look into the wisened faces and eyes that have seen history unfolding for the better part of a century, and it is difficult to imagine that they don’t deserve some basic human decency and care. Millions of elderly people would die in a matter of months, weeks, or even days if they had no safety net. That is why you’ll find no politician jumping at the chance to yoink benefits from our most elderly. I’ve yet to hear a good answer for what do we then do, as a country, about bodies that pile up in the streets.

Are all of these elderly people foolish and lazy? Did they not plan? Of course not. How can you expect someone to plan for an economy like the one we find ourselves in now? How could these elderly people, or any of us, plan for a computer revolution? How could they know about the impacts of 9/11, of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Vietnam, of plastic? None of us could have predicted Facebook or Twitter, none could have predicted that bees would die at an alarming rate and threaten our food supply. None could have predicted that an actor pretending to teach a chimp would become the demigod to a philosophy that morally ingrains financial profits over human worth. No one knew humans would invent a system of “civilization” that is so hostile to humans.

The system is rigged. That is the progressive AND conservative meme. Rigged in what way? well that depends on your point of view, who you allow to influence you, what media you use, what your history is. Each side thinks that they are correct and the other side is delusional. Progressives see the system as being rigged for the rich/corporations by the rich/corporations – that is who is running our world today whether they have a government title or not.Progressives feel that the way the economy is set up now, your chances of having a crisis befall your family becomes more and more likely, and we all stumble and fall sometimes. Conservative see the American dream getting sucked dry by the foolish and lazy sponges of society; they think the other poor people using government benefits are taking something away from their chance at the American dream – even if they themselves are utilizing government benefits now.

Progressives look at the big picture and see how many honest, hard working, good people have fallen in the last decade. Jobs, housing, rates of pay, health insurance, more competition, unhealthier ecosystems – we are all feeling the squeeze and either have our own hardship story, or know people that have suffered them. If this many people are making this many “foolish” choices, then it is saying something about the choices available to them. The quips from the video from elder conservatives about just “finding extra work” when times were tight, don’t necessarily apply since the era of work they are talking about is quite different from the current era. Ask an elder about living through the depression, was everyone just lazy at that time? Of course not. A well run society has meaningful work and decent compensation for that work, without that, you’ve got unhappy people. Unhappy people are much more likely to be unhealthy people, or law breaking people. There is no right and wrong here, I’m not justifying any crime, it’s a simple fact. These social factors contribute to general unrest among populations and make even escalate into demonstrations, retaliations (Oakland anyone?), possibly even war.

Conservatives, based on this NYT piece, seem to be in denial. They acknowledge that they receive entitlement programs such as unemployment, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, reduced lunches, foodstamps, and housing assistance, but in their case, they see a justification. The media that they watch loves to talk about the anonymous person of color that is living a lush lifestyle due to their government benefits. The reality of finding the demonized family of undeserving recipients is much more difficult. The truth is that when broken down into everyday stories, we all have some compassion for each other.

It’s hard to make a case that Paris Hilton has earned her millions. It’s equally hard to find someone working full time to raise a family on less than living wage and tell them that they are lazy, or deserve to just allow their family to just get sick and die as is needed in lieu of health care. Our system is not fair. It does not reward work, it only rewards activities that make profit – at any cost; it does not matter if it costs lives. The “free market” system does not take care of humans, only particular bank accounts. If you weren’t born in close proximity to those bank accounts, well you are out of luck.

The point of the article from the NYT is that among conservatives, they see a problem of too much spending, but the two solutions put forth are rejected by them. Taxes or taking away government programs (like Social Security or Medicare) are neither acceptable. The tone of “Joe Public” mimics that of the most popular conservative outlet, Fox News, in that there’s a whole lot of complaining but not a lot of solutions.  We can kindly talk about this disconnect with others by sharing more of our public stories about our hardships. One of the unfortunate cultural norms is for Americans to bottle our problems up and put on a face for others. This does us a disservice. It makes us feel disconnected from others and alone in our struggles. The more we hear about being in good company, the more we can realize that we are not lazy and not foolish, we are simply pawns in a global game. The object of the game right now is to create more pawns that will shut up and do a hard days work without complaint. It’s ok to admit, “I can’t afford to care for my parents!”, or “I feel like no employer want’s me” or “I thought for sure my house would always be there for us” – we’ve all been impacted, there is no shame.

In fact, shared vulnerability builds relationships. Share with another human, don’t check their affiliation first, just open up. Learn. Understand. Comfort. That’s what being American human is all about.

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3 thoughts on “The Right Entitlement

  1. Tipofmybrain says:

    It’s important to remember that being born on third base is not the same as hitting a triple.

  2. lokywoky says:

    Please please please do NOT refer to Social Security, Medicare or unemployment as “entitlement” programs. They are NOT! They are all three INSURANCE programs.

    Each of these three programs were (and are) set up so people pay into them. Then, when they need the benefits – they get money back. And yes, sometimes they get more out than what they put in. That is why it is called insurance – it is a plan whereby the entity that owns the plan (the US Government in this case) manages a large pool of money that is designed in such a way to remain solvent due to actuarial calculations. A percentage of people will never collect any benefits. A percentage of people will collect less than what they put in. A percentage of people will collect about the same amount as what they put in. And a percentage of people will collect more than what they put in. Private insurance companies (car, term life, health, homeowners, etc.) all operate the same way.

    These programs are NOT entitlements – and please do not call them that – it is a “frame” that conservatives use to demonize all of these programs in order to make everyone think they are bad and to help them in their quest to get rid of them all.

    Thank you. Other than that – liked the article.

    • Amy Meier says:

      I agree that the word “entitlement” is emotionally loaded and includes an implied judgement (which could be positive or negative). I would also agree that the Republican establishment has made it into a dirty word. It does tend to evoke a negative frame in our culture. Lumping all programs subsidized by the government together and calling them “entitlements” is a way to generalize and broad brush. It would be great for progressives to get “insurance” used more commonly.

      Good points.

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