Letter: ‘Entitlements’ definition explained



I agree with Malcolm Berko (“Social Security not entitlement; you earned it,” April 6) that prosperous, altruistic retirees should feel no remorse about accepting Social Security. But unlike Berko, I think it’s right to call Social Security an “entitlement.” Berko considers “entitlement” a dirty word, benefits that recipients “don’t pay for.” It really means any legal government transfer of money or other value to individuals. His real argument is that social insurance (payouts based on contributions) isn’t welfare (payouts based on poverty).

What we “paid for” and receive isn’t so formulaic. Most Medicaid recipients, especially of the most costly, long-term care, paid taxes as workers. Retirees didn’t self-fund Social Security accounts that “belong to” them; current workers’ taxes fund current benefits. Data contradict Berko’s “educated guess” about balances over lifetimes: Not long ago many got back contributions plus interest in under two years, but projections are that future retirees will not “get back” what we paid. The president’s budget proposal or other legislation could alter that.

“Entitlements” also include tax incentives such as mortgage interest deductions, which dwarf low-income housing assistance. President Obama’s proposal has potential to promote overdue, comprehensive debate about making “entitlements” humane, fair, efficient, and sustainable.

Charles P. Mitchell