What the Debate Over Entitlement Reform is Really About

In 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped onto a “sturdy kitchen table” to address an enthusiastic crowd of about 30,000 people gathered together in a small town called Osawatomie, Kansas. It was during that address that Roosevelt would articulate a new design for America — a new social and economic architecture that would champion not profit and property, but the laborer and his overall wellbeing. While Roosevelt was no longer president by the time he delivered the speech, his vision for what he called “New Nationalism,” or what 21st century America would refer to as “entitlement programs,” was one that would have major implications for national politics. So, as we consider the current debate emerging on how President Obama and Congress should deal with entitlement programs, we must revisit the same questions that must have consumed that mustache-bearing politician over a century ago. 

What Are Entitlement Programs?

Entitlement programs are, according to Auburn University’s “A Glossary of Political Economy Terms,” government programs that provide “individuals with personal benefits, goods, or services to which an indefinite amount of potential beneficiaries have a legal right.” Thus, in a sense, these programs “entitle” citizens, by virtue of the law, to certain benefits. These benefits have grown to include, but are not limited to, Social Security, Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), Veterans’ Administration programs, food stamps, and tax credits. It is important to note that Americans do not access these legally ordained programs solely on the basis of need but purely on the basis of criteria — whether or not someone meets outlined eligibility requirements. While entitlement programs are largely targeted to assist people who are poor or disabled, data from the Census Bureau suggests that almost 60% of the benefits from entitlement programs go to middle-income Americans, and the top 1% of Americans receive 24% of tax expenditures from such programs. Entitlement programs appear to be programs for everyone. 

Why Do We Need Them?

The short answer is, more equitable prosperity. A study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) concludes that federal assistance lifts millions of people out of poverty. Government aid programs also provide access to affordable health care for Americans who would not be able to afford it otherwise. These programs have also been structured in a way, due to Earned Income Tax Incentives, that actually promote work to a much stronger degree than they deter it. In fact, CBPP analysts believe that had it not been for safety-net programs the poverty rate in 2011 would have been almost twice as high as it ended up being — 29% instead of 16%. While a 16% poverty rate is extremely disheartening, having one in six Americans living in poverty is better than one in three. Quite frankly, we need entitlement programs because they work.

Why Would We Get Rid of Them?

While they carve a path out of poverty for Americans who struggle to provide themselves with basic needs, entitlement programs come with a very hefty price tag in today’s economy.   According to the Congressional Budget Office, entitlement spending contributes significantly to the budget challenge America will face over the next decade. In fact, during the first 10 months of the fiscal year, spending for the three largest entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — increased 5%, 3%, and 6%, respectively. While these spending increases were drowned in an overall federal budget decrease fueled by increases in revenue and money from cuts in defense spending and support for banks, there still remains the unanswered question of whether or not Americans can support Baby Boomer-led Social Security and Medicare programs, while simultaneously cutting the national debt.

The Dark Elephant in the Room

A look at the mechanics of entitlement programs makes the whole initiative seem very antiseptic. Yet, we know from our past that this debate is one that often becomes draconian.  Why? Race. 

Entitlement programs serve as a mechanism through which Americans project racial attitudes onto one another.  Political scientist Martin Gillens argues, in his book Why Americans Hate Welfare, that attitudes toward welfare are directly tied to racial attitudes.  How one perceives people of color correlates with attitudes one derives on the issue of welfare policy. So, when we debate the about programs that target the inner-city poor, the issue of race looms in the shadows. America needs a debate in which its citizenry speaks not from a place of prejudice and bias, but a position of truth and compassion. 

Looking back at Roosevelt’s speech, avoiding race was its shortcoming. After all, he originally traveled to Osawatomie not to change the course of a nation, but to consecrate a state park named in honor of John Brown and his resistance to pro-slavery forces in that small town 54 years before. And in that moment he spoke to a nation thirsting for true democracy after literally having just fought over its greatest sin. To Roosevelt, the answer for how to rebuild — both his Republican Party and America — was a “New Nationalism,” a country that invests in the welfare of its people. So as we revisit Roosevelt’s dream, we must confront the issues with race that are embedded within it. 

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Jonathan Collins

Jonathan Collins is a 2nd year doctoral student in political science at the University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA), who probably devotes way too much of his time to basketball. Nonetheless, in 2013, he published an article in the Harvard Journal of African American Policy. He holds a Master's degree in African American Studies from UCLA and a Bachelor's degree in English from Morehouse College. He was born and raised in Jackson, TN.

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