Word Choice in the Politics of Social Security

In contemporary political discourse, there are few topics that grab headlines and fire up the pundits like the budget crisis confronting our cash-strapped federal government. Not surprisingly, almost any initiative that requires government spending has come under increased scrutiny. One of the issues getting a lot of national attention has been the status of so-called "entitlement programs." Proposals for reform or even elimination of these programs have been put forth or cited in the media and elsewhere. But, use of the term "entitlements" is a strategic choice. In the context of Social Security Disability Insurance and the SSD/SSI process, the word "entitlement" is a rhetorical device used by political opponents of the Social Security program.

An Inaccurate Term

As applied in everyday language, the word "entitlement" is used to describe a sense that one feels deserving of reward; what the word implies is a right to benefits that may not have been earned. In psychology, the sense of entitlement is one symptom of narcissism.

In the legal context, entitlement is meant to have a distinctly different meaning. It means access to benefits by right or law, and unlike traditional usage, the legal understanding of the word "entitlement" is meant to carry no value judgment.

Neither the common use nor the legal concept of entitlement is entirely accurate in describing Social Security Disability Insurance. Social Security Disability benefits do not neatly fall into the category of a legal entitlement; benefits are only available to those who are "insured" through having worked for a long enough period of time and who meet the minimum requirements for prior monetary contributions in the form of Social Security taxes.

In most situations, to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, a worker needs to accumulate 40 "credits," half of which must have been earned in the 10 years prior to becoming disabled. Credits are earned at a rate based on the amount of income acquired through working, capped at a maximum of four per year (the amount required to earn a credit changes yearly, but in 2011, $1,120 of work-related income equals one credit).

In addition to meeting contribution requirements, workers are responsible for proving to the Social Security Administration that they have a qualifying disability. This means that in order to be a successful applicant - and less than 30 percent of applicants are successful on the first initial application - you must show that you cannot work at your prior job, and that you are unable to transition into another type of work. Thus, the nature of Social Security Disability benefits - in which benefits are earned - places the program in the schismatic category of programs known as "entitlements."

Misleading Use

Social Security Disability benefits are clearly not handouts; rather, they are earned by meeting contribution and disability requirements. When "entitlement" is used to describe Social Security Disability as a legal term of art, its meaning should only be that Americans who meet the requirements have the right to collect the benefits guaranteed to them.

Unfortunately, this precise meaning is rarely applied. Some people use the word "entitlement" in describing Social Security Disability Insurance and other programs strategically, to conjure negative connotations.

To imply that the Social Security Disability program is a sort of welfare program, instead of a safety net for injured workers who have contributed for years, is one major reason why the entire program may be at risk: voters, for instance, and lawmakers who otherwise support the program, may allow it to perish under the push to limit "big government" and eliminate "entitlements."