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Is 'entitlement' a dirty word?

Published September 22. 2012 09:01AM


The media cause célèbre this week was Mitt Romney's comment, surreptitiously taped at a gathering of his big-money supports, to the effect that nearly half of all Americans believe they are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and/or health care. The implication, if not the express meaning, of the remark is that people should be provided with the opportunity to try to succeed and prosper … and if they fail, well, that's just too bad.

This is the sort of remark that can be made only in front of an audience of those who have succeeded (or inherited) lavishly, and therefore have no fear of what tomorrow may bring them on the financial front. It can only be made to an audience of people who began life's race at a starting line that's literally miles in front of the starting position where most Americans were seeded.

It can only be made in front of an audience that never wonders whether a civilized, compassionate society ought to care if the least of its citizens have food, clothing, shelter and health care.

Believe me when I say that I'm not in favor of handouts to folks who are capable of taking care of themselves. Some 30 years ago I published a column in the University of Texas student newspaper, when I was on the faculty in Austin, arguing for a mandatory work-requirement for welfare recipients. In the 1990s a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress wrote such a requirement into the law. I applauded them then and I hold that view today. But when you pull down the safety net and leave people dangling, the results are bad for them and bad for all the rest of us, too.

My family and I have become obsessed with a TV series called "Breaking Bad." The anti-hero, Walt, is a high school chemistry teacher with a touch of cancer and inadequate medical insurance. Why would Walt, who teaches in a public school, not have medical insurance? Is it because he's in a right-to-work state and has no union to fight for him? We don't know.

Suffice to say that Walt's way of breaking bad is to become the number one crystal meth manufacturer in the state. He puts his college education to work, becoming an entrepreneur of the first order. Mitt and friends should applaud him. He is fulfilling their version of the American Dream. Never mind that he leaves a trail of corpses and addicts in his wake.

I think it would have been a whole lot better for Walt, his family, and our society, if he had been provided with the health care he needed to cure his cancer. But, hey, maybe that's just me.


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? A healthy population is good for everyone; it's why we try to get as many parents as possible to get their children vaccinated. It's called "herd immunity," because having as many healthy individuals in a group as possible makes for a healthier group overall. The healthy are vaccinated so that the weaker members of the group, who cannot get vaccinated, can still avoid getting sick by default. This benefits everyone.

Unless, of course, you are so wealthy you never need share the same airspace with those common folk, let alone the weakest members of the group. If you're so rich that you can afford to convalesce in a 12 million dollar home in La Jolla, then perhaps the value of "herd immunity" is lost on you. Perhaps you really are that out of touch. In fact, it seems plausible.

For the rest of us, though, it's an important step toward promoting a healthy, thriving society. I'm tired of hearing about how improving the majority's access to health care or proper housing, or education, or enough money to feed one's children is somehow asking for a handout, when access to these essentials benefits the entire country. I will concede that such measures may slightly inconvenience the wealthy few, but that shouldn't dissuade a presidential candidate who by nature is supposed to do everything in his power to benefit said country.

Then there's the fact that Romney seems to misunderstand how our government actually works (or, more likely, he is willfully misrepresenting the facts). According to Romney's recent remarks, taxation funnels money from the rich down to the poor or, more accurately, those lazy people who just aren't trying hard enough. But the truth of the matter is that rich citizens are truly the ones getting the handouts (and demanding the tax cuts). Take this example provided by the Huffington Post:

Consider the home mortgage interest deduction, a tax expenditure that costs the federal treasury approximately $130 billion per year … 75% of this tax expenditure is given to the top 20% of income earners. What this means is that the federal government spends almost $100 billion per year subsidizing large homes for upper middle class and wealthy people. Middle-class people get a tiny piece of this pie. Poor people get nothing. (

And the money for that tax expenditure for the rich comes almost exclusively from poor renters, transferred straight up the line to rich homeowners. Can Romney explain why the rich are entitled to that money, while he so clearly believes that the poor are not entitled to affordable housing or health care? Better yet, can he explain it without using the word "bootstraps"?

But the worst part of all of this is the disdain with which Romney clearly regards a large percentage (47 percent, to be exact) of his country's citizens. As a civilized society, we are supposed to help one another, if not for our own personal benefit, then for the benefit of the group at large. We are all entitled to a healthy society if we have the means to foster one. That Romney is so loathe to do so shows how deeply disconnected he is from the majority of us, and what's more, he doesn't care. If voters can't see that by now, then I truly fear for the future of our country.

The word "entitlement" is only dirty when used in a certain context. I think Mitt Romney illustrates that perfectly.

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