This word describes Social Security — but not everyone wants to hear it

U.S. presidential candidates get asked many questions about the country’s state of affairs — one of which is what they will do about “entitlement programs.”

“Entitlement” often refers to Social Security and Medicare, but critics argue that’s the wrong way to describe it. Many Americans take to social platforms saying they’ve paid into the system their entire careers, and thus, the benefit they will receive belongs to them.

And they’re right — which is a big part of the reason they’re called entitlements, experts say, because recipients are indeed entitled to them.

The term entitlement has developed a negative connotation, said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, which advocates for expanding the program. “Focus groups have found when you ask people to name entitlements, they’ll focus on welfare, and when they’re told Social Security [is an entitlement program], they get angry because of course Social Security is an earned benefit,” she said. The idea of being “entitled” has over time become associated with getting something one doesn’t deserve.

But the term has evolved — now it’s about politics, especially as the two major parties disagree about how to reform Social Security, and little progress has been made toward doing so. President Trump made a comment earlier this year that these programs could potentially be trimmed. When asked during an interview with CNBC whether entitlements would “ever be on his plate,” the president said “at the right time, we will take a look at that.”

After a predictable backlash, Trump — who had split from the Republican primary field in 2016 by insisting cuts to such programs would never be on the table — took back the statement and added that the Democrats were going to destroy Social Security and that he would save it. Meanwhile, on the presidential campaign trail, a few candidates have put forward proposals to expand the system — though they haven’t discussed Social Security at length on debate stages.

This conversation also comes at a time when the future of Social Security remains unknown. The trust funds that support the system are expected to run out of money within the next 15 years, and, if that happens, beneficiaries are expected to get an estimated 80% of what they’re owed. Congress has never let the program fail, experts have observed, but legislators have yet to decide how they will address the problem.

Social Security is a sensitive subject among many, especially considering the number of retirees who rely on those checks for much, if not most, of their income in old age. The program makes up the majority of retirement income for 61% of elderly beneficiaries, and a third of them rely on the program for 90% or more, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Also see: Everyone should be worried about Social Security and 401(k) plans — including the presidential candidates

“Entitlement programs,” in government budgeting speak, are the ones that the country deems mandatory spending — like Social Security and Medicare. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was previously called the Food Stamp Program, is another example, said Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That contrasts with discretionary spending, where — also in government budgeting terms — when the funding runs out, there’s no more in benefits to give, and individuals are placed on a waiting list. Examples including housing vouchers and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

The terminology for Social Security may have become politically charged, but, ultimately, it’s something Americans worked for, Romig said. “It’s an earned benefit,” she said. “The benefit is yours.”

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