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Is 'entitlement' a dirty word?

April 15, 2013, at 2:20 PM

Republicans have been working to convert the once-neutral "entitlement" label into a negative to make it easier for Congress to cut social programs.

While an entitlement used to be a positive — indicating a citizen's right to the benefits of a program they paid into — the term is now used to portray social spending that's out of control.

The shift was underscored during last year's presidential election, when Mitt Romney castigated the 47 percent of Americans who "believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

Now Republicans in Congress are working overtime to attach a similar negative feeling to Social Security and Medicare.

As Bloomberg notes, Americans were once conditioned to regard both programs as special. "The checks will come to you as a right," explained a 1936 government pamphlet that introduced Social Security.

President Lyndon Johnson had similar sentiments when he signed the legislation to establish Medicare, noting that the elderly "are entitled" to medical care.

As a result, the word "entitlement" remained non-controversial for decades, simply reflecting a person's eligibility for the popular government programs.

But that's changing, and Republicans now hope they can attach a negative feeling to these programs to build support for ultimately cutting them.

Of course, both parties seek to use language to push their agendas.

GOP strategist Frank Luntz wrote a must-read book called Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, which outlines his strategy for using words to change what people believe.

On the Democratic side, George Lakoff wrote The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic to show his party how words make a difference.

Some Democrats have argued they should call Social Security and Medicare "earned benefits" programs instead of "entitlements." But it never caught on. And now Republicans have framed the debate.

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