The Problem with "Earned Benefits"


With elements of the New Deal and Great Society under constant attack from conservatives who refer to things like Social Security and Medicare as 'entitlements', a fairly new liberal counterbalance has risen up in the war of words: we are urged to refer to these essential programs that comprise the American social compact as "earned benefits." The logic for this is two-fold: (a) we pay Social Security and Medicare taxes (payroll taxes) throughout our working lives, and have therefore earned those benefits in our golden years, and (b) if a benefit is earned, it is spared from the negative connotation of welfare and entitlement.

The logic may seem sound, but it is dangerous. In the first place, it allows conservatives frames of argument to define - and degrade - the concepts of social welfare and economic rights (better known as 'entitlements'). This isn't something liberals should surrender to conservative loudmouths. The word 'conservative' isn't mentioned in our Constitution, but it charges our government with a specific purpose to "promote the general welfare." Allowing conservatives to defile what 'welfare' means is an affront to the very idea of America, and it should offend every liberal.

Secondly, using a frame of 'earned benefits' is a double-edged sword. Though it may offer some rhetorical relief to attacks against Social Security and Medicare (in reality it will do exactly nothing to stop conservative attacks against both), it makes defending and expanding the rest of the social safety net that much more difficult.

It stratifies the social compact into "earned" benefits and other benefits, which, presumably are not earned and therefore less deserving of defense or even existence. These other essential components of the social safety net include:

  • Medicaid and CHIP - essential components of the safety net to ensure that the poor, children, and disabled Americans do not have to go without medical care because of the size of their bank accounts,
  • SNAP and free and discounted school lunch - programs designed to ensure that poor single parents and children in America do not have to go hungry,
  • Extended unemployment benefits - while the initial six months is covered under insurance paid for by employer portion of taxes, the extended benefits are not,
  • Section 8 and other housing assistance programs, and yes -
  • The Affordable Care Act - a law that provides subsidies for individuals and families to buy health insurance, massively expands Medicaid and reins in industry abuses.

The fact is, building a just society by liberal terms requires the existence of, indeed the subsistence of, social welfare.

Giving those at the edges of society a hand up is not only a value we should never be afraid to defend, it is also an economic good.

Providing food stamps and school lunches are an investment in our nation's children and families as they work hard to build a life for themselves, as are Medicaid and CHIP. Making affordable, quality health insurance a social responsibility rather than a privilege doesn't only make medical care a basic human right, it also unleashes the potential of the next big innovator who may be starting out in a garage but needs health insurance for her family. Extended unemployment benefits don't just provide the long-term unemployed with a measure of dignity, it increases consumer spending, economic activity and economic output.

These elements of social justice are every bit as important as a minimum secure income and health care for the elderly and the disabled.

We should not allow conservatives - or anyone - to divide and conquer the essential elements of the American social and generational compact. We ought to be focused on expanding this compact - this concept of social responsibility and general welfare, not stratifying it so that others can pick them off one by one.

We should not be stepping into the conservative trap that our fellow Americans who fall on hard times and need help are less deserving of our help than those who have paid a certain specific tax. Social justice isn't about buying - or prepaying for - individual benefits. It is about social responsibility for everyone and to everyone in a just society.

The last danger to this logic of prepaid individual benefits in place of broad social responsibility may be most frightening: not only does it indirectly help conservatives divide and conquer the American social compact, it

directly aids conservative arguments to dismantle the very programs we are trying to defend.

 The "earned benefit" argument, insofar as it elevates Social Security and Medicare because

 individuals earned it by paying for it is legally inaccurate. Your Social Security and Medicare taxes aren't deposited in an individual account waiting for you to retire. Current taxes pay current benefits. It is a direct transfer from those paying taxes to those receiving benefits.

But if liberals are afraid of this truth and we simply want to redefine it as an earned benefit, it gives credence to the idea that these are individually earned individual benefits. It's a short and slippery slope from there to George W. Bush's "individual accounts" for Social Security and to Paul Ryan's "premium assistance" on Medicare - both designed to dismantle the programs using the very argument that these programs are - or should be - individually based, not socially held up. When we try to reframe this debate, let us remember to define our values and not just move words around.

The American social compact is a liberal success story, based on the liberal concepts of social responsibility, general welfare and social justice. No liberal should be afraid to own it proudly. Instead of stratifying the social compact between "earned benefits" and (supposedly) undeserving moochers,  let us refocus on re-establishing the broad concept of social responsibility. Instead of using the conservative frame of trying to determine who deserves  what part of our social compact based on what they earned,  let us refocus the conversation on who  deserves  what part of our social compact based on what they need, and what the country needs for everyone to have the best chance to thrive.

Let us proudly defend the welfare of our people - of all Americans. Let us stay focused on the social part of Social Security.

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