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Entitlements are fundamental Human Rights, not political poker chips to be bargained away

Research & Commentary
December 05, 2012

by Salvatore Babones

In September 1974, Gerald Ford’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) introduced a new term into the English language: “entitlement program.”

Journalist Edwin L. Dale Jr. (who later joined Ronald Reagan’s OMB as budget spokesperson) explained in the September 22, 1974 New York Times that the term “covers all those cases where the law creates a formula of some kind that entitles individuals or, in a few cases, state and local governments, to qualify for federal payments.”

Since Richard Nixon had just resigned on August 9, the nation may not have been paying much attention to technical briefings from the OMB.

Ford’s OMB divided the federal budget into four categories, a basic division that is still used today. First came contractual obligations like interest on the debt. Interestingly, the OMB placed corporate welfare programs like federal mortgage insurance and farm price supports in this sacrosanct category.

Second came “entitlement programs” like Social Security, Food Stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. The OMB assumed that these could not realistically be cut because the people receiving them would raise hell if they were.

[pullquote]The basic necessities of life are not for government to give or withhold based on its current budget situation.[/pullquote]

These were the programs that Nixon wanted to get rid of, but felt he couldn’t. He left Ford in no position to pursue an ideological crusade against them. Ford needed every vote he could get.

Third came defense spending, ring-fenced as always.

Last on the list, and first on the chopping block, came domestic discretionary spending – in other words, “government.” According to OMB data, domestic discretionary spending has fallen from 21.3 percent of all federal spending in 1974, to just 16.1 percent today. Under the Budget Control Act of 2011 domestic discretionary spending will suffer disproportionate cuts due to sequestration in 2012.

Of the four categories, Nixon prioritized interest payments to investors first, subsidy payments to individuals second, the military third and government last. The only major change to this formula came with election of Ronald Reagan, who moved the military up from third place to second. Subsequent presidents have followed Reagan’s lead.

Now that domestic discretionary spending has been eviscerated, anti-government forces have turned their attention to entitlement programs.

Conservative doomsters claim that growth in entitlement spending is swallowing the federal budget and swamping the American economy. On September 17 conservative commentator David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that “the entitlement state is growing at an unsustainable rate and will bankrupt the country.”

A December 1 article in the Wall Street Journal quoted conservative Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield calling entitlements “an attack on the common good.

“Entitlements say that ‘I get mine no matter what the state of the country is when I get it.'”

Mansfield goes on to lay out a strategy for getting rid of entitlements: “If Republicans can get entitlements to be understood no longer as irrevocable, but as open to negotiation and to political dispute and to reform, then I think they can accomplish something.”

[pullquote]The basic necessities of life are things we are entitled to have, no matter how inconvenient it may be for our neighbors to pay for them.[/pullquote]

Runaway growth in entitlement spending has long been a bugbear of American conservatives. The New York Times, then as now, slightly to the right of Richard Nixon on economic issues, concluded back in 1974 that growth in government spending “is the problem much more than this year’s final total. And getting a handle on growth means getting a handle on entitlement programs.”

Conservative attacks on entitlements have been so successful that many progressives now shy away from using the term. Mark Karlin prefers to call Social Security an “earned benefit.” Lambert Strether prefers FDR’s concept of “social insurance.” Anything but an entitlement.

But those who would reframe the term miss the point. What about people who never paid into the system, never had a social position to fall from, maybe never earned a cent at all? Do we leave them to beg on the streets and sleep under a bridge? Do we let them starve? If they get sick, do we let them die?

If they have children, do we let those children go to school barefoot and hungry? Do we let their teeth rot and their dirty little noses run? Do we put them to work cleaning toilets to pay their way through charter school?

As citizens of the richest country on earth, we are entitled to food, clothing, housing, medical care and education. The basic necessities of life are not for government to give or withhold based on its current budget situation. They are things we are entitled to have, no matter how inconvenient it may be for our neighbors to pay for them.

So far as the United Nations is concerned, not just Americans, but all human beings, are entitled to food, clothing, housing, medical care and education – as well as rest, leisure and holidays. That’s from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States voted for it way back in 1948.

In fact, we wrote it. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the commission that drafted it. Most of the work was done in Lake Success, NY. That’s right: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written on Long Island.

Entitlements are not political poker chips to be bargained away in exchange for tax cuts or legislative victories. They are not problems to be reformed. They are universal human rights.

Originally published in Truthout. Copyright, Truthout. Used with permission.

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