The Entitlement Myth: Reframing the Discussion around Social Services

In today’s society, discussions surrounding social services have taken on an overwhelmingly negative tone. When images of poverty do not fit the descriptors many of us have perpetuated as being "truly poor", questions arise as to whether the disenfranchised among us are really deserving of our help. Visible government benefits, such as food stamps or housing vouchers, have earned a bad reputation, and as is the case for many programs, are up for budget cuts this fiscal season.    

A recent Washington Post article looked at the double standard those living in poverty often face as they are forced to prove that they deserve welfare. The author argues that while the poor are disposed to drug tests and strict shopping lists in order to receive government benefits, other recipients of government funding do not face similar requirements.  The article names farmers receiving subsidies and students receiving Pell Grants, citing that “the strings we attach to government aid are uniquely for the poor.” As a community of faith, we need to lead the way in questioning whether or not we have unfairly created a system of entitlement as it relates to social well-being.

Echoes of this double standard have gained attention as they have appeared in a very visceral way in shopping plazas, parks and meeting centers. Aesthetic changes to these spaces come in the form of bars dividing park benches, or spikes in areas suitable for lying down. These design modifications are constructed with the intent of deterring the homeless from using public places for rest. Advocates for the homeless have argued against these changes on the principle that they are unfair and unjust.

“Visible government benefits, such as food stamps or housing vouchers, have earned a bad reputation...”

Legislation is gaining traction, however, in the form of the Right to Rest Act. The Right to Rest Act, currently on the table in several states, decriminalizes the use of public spaces by the homeless. This piece of legislation has made room for great discussion on the sense of otherness we ascribe to the poor, both legally and normatively. As citizens, our concerns that our resources are being abused have moved discussions away from solving systemic causes of poverty in favor of divisive, politically polarizing conversations.

According to a Center for American Progress article, “Misperceptions put all public benefits programs at risk, including those that reach the middle class.”  One of the best things we can do to break down stigmatizations surrounding poverty and social security is to educate ourselves and our neighbors on who social security goes to, and what its purposes are.

 The average recipient of government benefits is elderly and receives some form of Social Security and Medicare. Low-income target programs, according to the 2012 budget, received about half the funding when compared to elder care. Many have heard the expression that there is no such thing as a free lunch – and that, too, applies to social security.

 The majority of Americans who receive benefits either have paid into programs, or are currently paying into them through their taxes or contributions employers have made on their behalf. Within the budget for low income target programs, basic needs covering health insurance and food security compromise a majority of resources. This is by no means a luxury program full of handouts. In fact, most households receiving some form of social security have at least one parent in a working job. We may go so far as to say that in the broken economy we see in America today, that social security is acting as needed a subsidy to employment.

The budget of a country says a lot about what the values of its society are. It is disturbing that our preconceived notions may have misled us to leaving some of our core values unattended. Social security plays a vital role in ensuring that our neighbors have clothing, shelter and food.  If we desire a fair system where people can get ahead, part of what that means is decriminalizing, and no longer subjecting poor and low-income individuals to unfair conditions in order for them to meet their most basic human needs. The myth of entitlement in our culture is one that I trust will be dispelled with time and understanding.  

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.