While I’m talking about the federal budget, I need to talk about the words that are often used. One that particularly gets the veins popping is “entitlements.” In popular usage, it is a judgment–that people have a sense of their right to special treatment or privileges, as if they were a King or Queen. It is not uncommon to hear people dismiss a whole generation of young people by saying, “they think they are entitled to everything.” It is a criticism of what is seen as a personal arrogance.
But the word entitlement means something different in world of the federal budget. The term “entitlement” has nothing to do with deserving, privilege, a subjective belief, or personal arrogance. It simply means that a government program–such as Social Security, Medicare, or Food Stamps–provides benefits to any individual meeting certain eligibility requirements. If you are 65 or older, you are eligible to receive Medicare. If your income falls close to the poverty line or under the poverty line, you and your family will be eligible for food stamps.
An entitlement program is a promise made by the federal government: if you meet the eligibility requirements, you will be able to participate in the program.
For the Congress, who makes the annual budget, the challenge is to accurately gauge the demand for a program like food stamps. If Congress does not appropriate enough money to meet the demand, they will have to move money from other programs to cover all eligible applicants for that fiscal year. Program officials cannot say to any eligible person, “Sorry, we have not more money.”
During the great recession and its aftermath, there was an increase in applicants for food stamps as many people lost their jobs. The government had to provide additional money to cover that increase. Of course, that is the function of a safety net program–to protect people from the down-cycles of the economy.
And the food stamp program is effective in meeting minimum needs. I used to offer students a chance to live on the equivalent of food stamps for a month and record their spending, meals, and subjective experience. While most could manage within the highest allowance for their family size, it was not easy nor was it like their normal meals, but they survived it. They were all relieved when the experiment ended.
Other programs–which are called discretionary–receive a set appropriation each year. When they run out of money, they run out of money. People who would be eligible to participate in the program are unable to because there is not enough money.