Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Entitlements. Entitlements! Entitlements?

Have you ever typed a word or term into Wildpac, or any search engine, and received an unexpected result because you did not anticipate the many meanings to the word or term? Or perhaps the problem was created by the life cycle of words as they age, that is, how they change in meaning over time. Catalogers are often left with a word or term that once was neutral in meaning when created, but has changed due to circumstances, often politics.

For instance, take the word entitlement.  From the Washington Post, “Until the 1980s, entitlement wasn’t part of everyday language. Ronald Reagan was apparently the first president to use the term extensively. He may have 'tired of getting beaten up every time he mentioned Social Security, and wanted a broader and more neutral term,' political scientist Norman Ornstein has suggested.” But quoting from the Jacobin: A Magazine of Culture and Polemic: “The word entitlement is widely held in disrepute. Ronald Reagan, political acumen never in doubt, was the first major politician to cast the popular programs as 'entitlements', in an effort to malign them.” So Reagan, the great communicator, was the one of the first to start using this word to describe Social Security and Medicare, implying that they were freebies.

As a cataloger I use the Library of Congress Subject Headings to create subjects headings in records for materials added to the Wildpac online catalog. The subject headings list is an authority file of over 330,000 records. LC Subject Headings are all created to be as neutral as possible, but still be as descriptive of the material they are describing. Often times, it takes years for LC to establish a new subject heading precisely because they want it to be politically neutral. Long established headings like "Entitlement Attitudes" and "Entitlement Spending" are the only ones that actually use the word entitlement. The word "Entitlement" itself will probably never make it as a LC Subject heading.

In referring to Social Security, which is now considered one of those entitlements that is in danger of draining the budget, the term “Federal Retirement Benefits” could possibly be the more neutral term, but is not a possible choice since that is still not a valid term according to LC. Again quoting in a letter to the editor, in response to an editorial in the New York Times, “I agree that the term entitlement has become a pejorative, and that's unfortunate, since the majority of retired workers are, in fact 'entitled', meaning 'owed.' After all, they paid into the system their entire working lives.”

As a 64 year old librarian who is looking at retirement in the not too distant future, I too, would have to agree, since I have been adding my own money into the system for well over 40 years and do expect that I should be getting something out after all that effort. After all, I’ve also been saving money in a retirement account over nearly as long a period, and I doubt that anyone would deny that I am owed that money. But since the government has been using that money all along to balance its’ budget, there is no actual fund.

 David Leonhardt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning economics expert says that the average person does come much closer to paying for his or her Social Security benefits, although he believes the same is not true for Medicare, another entitlement. “Two married 66-year-olds with roughly average earnings over their lives will end up paying about $110,000 in dedicated Medicare taxes through the payroll tax, including the portion their employers pay. They can expect to receive about $340,000 in benefits. Two average-earning 56-year-olds will pay about $140,000 and get back about $430,000 in benefits.”

But the same can be said for Social Security. In actual dollars, a recipient will, on average, take out more than he or she puts in. But one does have to look at what inflation has done to that money over time. My first full-time job after graduating from Western New England in 1971 paid $2.25 per hour, but even at that rate taxes were being taken out to cover Social Security and Medicare. Doesn’t one have to adjust the dollars from 1971 to the present value in 2014?

So where does that leave an aging word? Perhaps in time, some other term will become more used to express exactly how people feel about paying taxes for services, current and in the future, and the term "entitlement" will become less pejorative. Until then, LC limits what I can use.

Type entitlement into Wildpac and you will see about 125 uses of the word going back to 1955. One of the oldest is a report of the subcommittee on Housing on Veteran’s Affairs that is part of a general inquiry being conducted into illegal use of veterans’ entitlements of VA guaranteed home loans on the part of inspectors and compliance appraisers, with a full text of the original document.

And here’s another word that has aged badly, "pension". Type that into Wildpac and you will get over 43,000 records.

LC Subject Headings: Entitlement attitudes, Entitlement Spending, Pensions, Social Security, Social Security Individual Investment Accounts.

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