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What is an Entitlement Program?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 16, 2024
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An entitlement program can be defined as a governmental mechanism where public funds are given to people because they meet some kind of requirement. One commonly known American example of an entitlement program would be the federal food stamp program, which allows people without sufficient funds to buy food. Another well-known program is Medicare, although only certain parts of that program actually qualify as entitlements.

There are some common misconceptions related to the definition of an entitlement program. Many people believe that any program where the government gives people money is an entitlement program, but this is not the case. For example, people actually give money to the Social Security program during their years of work, so they are actually paying to gain access to that program, and it doesn’t necessarily qualify as an entitlement. Medicare is similar, although there are actually parts of both programs that could technically be called entitlement program elements.

An example of Medicare and Social Security being used as entitlement programs would be when someone is disabled and they can’t work. People in this situation are given access to Social Security funds, along with government medical insurance. These people don’t actually have to pay into the program to get a benefit, and this is what separates them from normal Medicare and Social Security recipients.

There has been a political firestorm over these programs in the United States. Many people on the right-wing side of the political spectrum are strongly opposed to any kind of entitlement program. They believe that they ultimately cause people to become more reliant on government, and that could potentially harm society. People on the left-wing side of the political spectrum have the opposite view. They think that the government should be spending significantly more money on entitlement programs as a way to help the needy.

Some of these programs can be very expensive for a government to maintain in the long term. In order to keep these kinds of programs going, governments are often forced to raise taxes and reduce spending in other areas such as military defense or scientific research. Once the government sets up some kind of program, it is usually politically very difficult to reduce spending on it, and it is often politically impossible to remove it. Those on both sides of the political spectrum often look for ways to reduce the price of these programs so that they can avoid increasing taxes, which is also politically unpopular.

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Discussion Comments

By anon997976 — On Mar 26, 2017

Another entitlement is when congress steals social security money to pay for one of their special projects that has nothing to do with what the money was intended for. Another huge entitlement program is the when congressmen get huge vacations, insurance, sick days, and other benefits paid with taxpayer money and don't have to live by the same laws they pass.

By anon337506 — On Jun 05, 2013

FYI, Social Security and Medicare are actually entitlement programs. Food stamps and Medicaid are not entitlement programs; they are means-tested programs. Entitlement programs provide benefits to individuals regardless of need, or in other words, everyone is entitled to them.)

By anon312206 — On Jan 06, 2013

I think there should be drug tests for all entitlement programs and if they fail, they do not receive benefits for a year. If they reapply, drug test at random times.

I know so many people drawing disability, food stamps, housing assistance, medical assistance and so much more, who are no more than lazy drug abusers and alcoholics. These people live off the government, and it only makes it hard on the people who really work hard and if they ever need it, it may not be there for them. I think this is very wrong and can be fixed by our government. It would save so much by not spending on those who abuse the help they are given.

By anon312113 — On Jan 05, 2013

Not so fast: you missed corporate entirely! We spend double the amount on corporate welfare as compared to all social service programs and taxpayers get virtually no return. The profits are doled out to CEOs in the millions! If we want true entitlement reform, we need to start with corporate welfare!

By anon310502 — On Dec 23, 2012

I'm disabled but I paid into Social Security for 30 years before I became disabled, and I also pay into my state's fund. I also bought and paid out huge sums of money for a disability policy, hoping I would never need it (like you hope you never need auto and home insurance, but you still pay for them). The sum I get from the government wouldn't be enough to survive except on the street, so I would never refer to it as an "entitlement" program. What the free part of it is, I have no idea, so I think your information is flawed.

As for Medicare, not only does $150 come out of my Social Security disability income every month to pay for this medical insurance (more than what I paid out of my weekly checks when I was working), but in addition to that, I pay at least 20 percent of the total bill from all doctors/hospitals/urgent care facilities, etc. It doesn't cover dental or vision in any way as if your eyes and teeth aren't the least bit necessary in every day functioning.

Elderly people where I live often wind up risking their and others' lives because they can't see well enough to be driving. But they can't afford eyeglasses. Sure there are ads for cheap eyeglasses, but not if you are severely near- or far-sighted and have an astigmatism, etc.

Medicare doesn't cover any prescription medications, so you have to pay for an additional plan, one to pay for your meds. So that's another $500 a year, but of course these plans barely cover any of the cost of any meds people actually need. I always have to decide which days I won't eat so I can afford my medications, even the least expensive ones, like thyroid medication. When I was hospitalized for two surgeries, I couldn't afford the medication prescribed to prevent me from throwing blood clots. It was $972 for a 30 day supply.

But I could afford the medication ($11) for when my feet and ankles swelled and I got really ill once I did develop blood clots.

I don't qualify for state help because my "income" is $3 more a month than the limit for one person. I don't get any federal help because I don't get state help. Free? I don't think so.

By KarlMichael — On Dec 02, 2012

"Entitlement" is psychopath lingo used by the politicians. Ergo, almost all right wing politicians are psychopaths. For the psychopath belonging to this group, the meaning that entitlement has to them is far different than that defined by the dictionary. If you don't believe me ask them. (Check the media.)

Now for the psychopath followers (47 percent and counting); the authoritarian class (not in the loop), means simply not sharing their wealth with the other class. All the while letting Wall Street gamble their limited wealth.

By the constitution; we all would agree that we are all entitled to an equal justice system. This has been far from the truth here in America. The rich, political figures and famous people have far-reaching capabilities of getting off scot-free in our judicial system. But by their entitlement definition,

this is the best judicial system.

By anon295031 — On Oct 04, 2012

Entitlements will break our country. We cannot continue on this path. I am not talking about taking from people who really need help. I am talking about slackers. Go to a section eight housing development. You'll see young men and women hanging around. You can almost feel the disgust from them walking along the sidewalk. I say put these young people to work. Teach them a skill. I do not mean more schooling. Teach them how to weld, how to be a machinist, how to work constructing roads, how to work in places where physical work is needed. It is said you cannot live on minimum wage. Get another job. Two jobs can make enough money to survive.

Now about women who have children without fathers: I do not know how to fix that. Those women know about birth control. The fathers are too dumb to know how to prevent a child from being made, apparently. Maybe those men should be put in the armed services and have their pay go to the women. Oh, no answer comes easy to this problem. Either way, the child suffers.

By nony — On Jun 04, 2011

Can anybody tell me about entitlement programs in countries besides the US? I know that many countries have extensive healthcare and pension plans, but I'd like to learn more about what those plans are as well as how they compare to the entitlement programs in the US.

Can anybody help out?

By Mammmood — On Jun 01, 2011

@NathanG - Entitlements always come at a price. There is never a free lunch, and the payer is always the American taxpayer. However politicians find themselves in a vicious political circle.

Sometimes they can’t stomach the thought of cutting taxes because they think that it will reduce revenue (the opposite is true), yet the thought of raising taxes puts a scare in them because it’s rarely politically popular (in fact that is true).

Yet the only sensible thing if they want to keep entitlements going is to raise taxes in their view, or raid the Social Security slush fund until it goes dry.

By NathanG — On May 29, 2011

@oasis11 - Every now and then I get a statement from the Social Security Administration showing me how much I have paid into the system. I understand from speaking with colleagues that I can choose to opt out of the system, in which case I will get all the money that I’ve put it into it, but would not collect from it at a future date.

It’s commonly said that Social Security will not be around when I am ready to retire, so I’ve actually given that a thought. I agree with you that Social Security should have been privatized to give it a fighting chance of living on, but there wasn’t the political will to do that.

By oasis11 — On May 29, 2011

@Subway11 - I agree and I also think that a lot of these programs are expensive. They say that if the Medicaid entitlement program is not changed it may become insolvent in the future. This is really scary because a lot of people depend on Medicaid and Medicare. They also say the same thing about Social Security.

I think that if the Social Security annuity could be placed in the stock market up to a few years before you begin to draw from it, you might have enough gains from the stock market to offset any dips in the Social Security fund. This idea always gets shot down, but it is one that should be reconsidered.

I heard some of the politicians even talk about raising the retirement age to begin drawing from Social Security, but as it is you have to be 67 to draw and the average life expectancy is in the mid 70’s, so they can’t push too far out.

By subway11 — On May 29, 2011

@Comfyshoes - It makes a lot of sense, but the problem is that homeownership is a big responsibility and it requires paying taxes and maintaining the home in addition to the mortgage payment.

There are government entitlement programs that only require a 3% down payment because the loan is backed by the federal government. FHA and Fannie Mae mortgages fall into this category. The problem that I see is that 3% down is not enough of a cushion when buying a property and most banks require private mortgage insurance if the down payment is less than 20% because statistically people that put less than 20% on a property have the highest probability of defaulting on the loan.

I think that these programs are well intentioned, but we may be setting people up for failure.

By comfyshoes — On May 29, 2011

I think that government entitlement programs have positives and negatives. For example, offering a housing subsidy to needy people really helps them to get by but the problem is that some people become used to the help and do not move away from it because it is hard to do so. For example, if the market rent is $900 and the government subsidizes $700 of your rent you would be hard pressed to leave this program because the difference between what you pay and what the government pays is so great.

In addition, the government entitlement programs also include down payment assistance for needy families so that they too could own homes. I know that many of these entitlement programs offer up to $70,000 in grants that do not have to be paid back so that lower income families could own homes. It is also promoted because of the high amount of foreclosures in many communities that the government felt that having people live in these homes would also lower the crime rate and stabilize some of the neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates.

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