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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

When Did “Entitlement” Become a Pejorative?: A Few Notes on Social Security

When did “entitlement” become a pejorative? Even presumably objective PBS commentators thoughtlessly toss out the word with a snarl, assuming that everyone knows it’s a negative term. They use it to convey the sense of “spoiled” or “selfish” -- but “entitled” is an honorable word.

It means that one is entitled to something one has earned. It’s the same root as in “title,” when that is used to denote ownership of a home or car. It’s an investment that has matured and is paying off. Recipients of Social Security and Medicare indeed are entitled: we paid into those accounts for decades, specifically for their designated purpose of protecting our financial security after we left the work force.

When I was young, it commonly was called “old age insurance,” and insurance is exactly the right word. It’s true that we had no choice except to pay these premiums via payroll taxes, but pay them we did. It was and remains a sacred trust between people and their government, a contract that cannot be rewritten when payment comes due.

Nor is Social Security is a bucket of anonymous money to be granted or withheld by Congress: instead, it is composed of individual accounts. In the month prior to a birthday, everyone over 65 gets a printed account delivered by the US Post Office of how much money will be due, depending on what one has paid in.

Decades after the successful launch of Social Security, financers invented the “individual retirement account” or “IRA” -- but they were not creating anything new. Private enterprise instead copied the governmental model. The only change was that it became easier for Wall Street to get its collective hands on workers’ money, thus enabling them to take more risks and charge much higher administrative costs.

These financiers competed directly against Social Security, which always has had extremely low overhead, and so -- especially with their target audience of young earners – Wall Street has portrayed Social Security as a scam that never will pay off. Too many young people believe that, but if they simply would look at the evidence provided by their grandparents, it is clear that the government keeps its contracts with individuals much more responsibly than private financiers.

Even now, with the baby boom generation from World War II reaching retirement age, Social Security is secure well into the future. All actuarial tables and mainstream economists agree on that. It is only right-wingers who argue that the nation cannot afford to keep its promises and repay what is owed. Even more ironically, those who would break the national fiduciary trust like to paint themselves as patriotic and traditionalists.

This time they tie their specious arguments to “the fiscal cliff,” another trendy cliché from Republican think tanks that the media too easily adopts. A few years ago, when they no longer had a majority in the Senate, the catch phrase was “the nuclear option,” meaning that they intended to use the Senate’s filibuster to get their way. That’s a topic for another column, but the point here is that pundits – including even smart people at PBS -- unthinkingly further an ideological agenda when they ape such overblown language as “nuclear option.”

But it was ever thus. A friend sent this faux wisdom from 1949, when to the astonishment of the commentator class, ordinary people gave Democrat Harry Truman a second term in office – just as ordinary people have done in 2012. Titled “Ode to the Welfare State,” it reads in part:

Father, must I go to work?

No, my lucky son,

We’re living now on Easy Street

On dough from Washington.

We’ve left it up to Uncle Sam,

So don’t get exercised,

Nobody has to give a damn –

We’ve all been subsidized.

That was 1949, more than a half-century ago, and the nation has not go to hell in a hand-basket. Instead, we went to the moon and beyond, with investments that were inconceivable in 1949.

We spent billions on our young people with the GI Bill that enabled them to buy homes and begin business, as well as to pay the tuition at the best universities that would admit them. We built thousands of community colleges and educated people who would have been dropouts in earlier decades. We implemented a largely toll-free interstate highway system that greatly lowered the cost of transporting goods. We cured polio and tuberculosis, invented artificial hearts and joint replacements, and much more.

In the 1960s, we emulated Canada, Japan, European and other nations by creating Medicare. Unlike those countries, we did not provide health to everyone, but only to seniors. We did not go bankrupt as a result of Medicare, despite the doom cries of those who railed against “socialized medicine.”

Decades later, we finally are following our global competitors by expanding health access to everyone. As before, the intellectual descendants of conservatives are predicting “death panels” with Obamacare, but that has not and will not happen. These people are Jeremiahs crying in the wilderness of their wild imaginations.

They thrive on fear, not hope. They increase their sense of power by spreading fear to others, stopping any reforms that will benefit ordinary Americans at the very minor expense of the rich. And to add to the irony, many of those very rich and wanna-be-rich people reached that status because of federal subsidies to their educations and businesses.

Let’s look long and hard before jumping off any supposed fiscal cliff.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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