Pressing for Medicare legislation, President Johnson told press secretary Bill Moyers, “We’ve just got to say that, by God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled and we promised it to her.”
Words are like people; they change and grow. Entitle is a prime example. At core, an entitlement is the grant of a rightful legal or moral claim, like the title to your house or car. The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence refers to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”
The shift in usage, from rightful to unjustified, dates from the 1960s and 1970s. Psychologists described narcissists as displaying a sense of entitlement. Politicians dropped the word “earned” from Roosevelt’s description of Social Security as an earned entitlement. Defenders of Medicare and Social Security say the programs aren’t entitlements; we’ve paid into them and earned them. Oddly, it has become an insult to call something an entitlement if the recipient is actually entitled to it.
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