Speaking of Entitlements

Speaking of Entitlements

Image source: www.bartcop.com
Image source: www.bartcop.com

Have you ever noticed that the word “entitlement” has become a back alley racial slur, right in the neighborhood with “urban,” “ghetto,” “welfare queen,” “take back America,” and Mitt Romney’s comment that the country’s re-elected African American president won because he was giving people stuff. As a Black woman in America, when I hear these insults I feel the sun eclipsed just a bit on my humanity.

The Democratic/Republican stand-off on deficit reduction that has put Social Security and Medicare entitlements on the lips of Paul Ryan budget hawks and Tea Party robo-faux-economists, has denigrated these pay-as-you-go revenue-producing programs into welfare slush funds robbing money from the middle-class to give to the poor. To hear the conservatives tell it, these are the socialist giveaways that are swelling the deficit and darkening our children’s futures. They have tied the word “entitlement” to the American economic train wreck with Bertha, the welfare cheat, at the helm.

Washington Examiner chief political correspondent, Byron York, reports that deficit jitters has “absolutely nothing to do with Social Security and Medicare…entitlements need to be controlled in the long run” but he claims that other spending is to blame.

New Yorker financial writer James Suroweicki says: “When F.D.R. introduced Social Security, he calculated that funding it through a payroll tax rather than out of general tax revenue would make people think of the program not as welfare but as an entitlement—as something that they had paid for and had a right to.”

The word “entitlement” had prestige and dignity before the party of “no” got its hands on it. The point is that these programs are being hotly debated and politicized in the deficit reduction melee on Capitol Hill. The racialization of the issue is a common strategy to turn serious discourse on its head and rally irrational support by appealing to embedded racial stereotypes. The fact of the matter is that real economists have a range of views on paycheck benefits from allaying fears that there is an actual crisis to suggesting that the sky is falling and that we should raise the retirement age.  Of course, there is the privatization scheme for Social Security that would put your hard-earned savings on the Wall Street roulette wheel. One policy wonk, Robert W. Patterson, wrote that “Indeed, the two pay-as-you-go entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, are actually budget bracers, not budget busters.”

I am not an economist and so not equipped to weigh in here, but the codification of racial sentiment regarding entitlements is frankly getting on my nerves. Not only that, but the facts get lost in the Fox news sauce.

Mitt Romney’s outed, bootlegged remarks that 47% of American deadbeats have their hands out to the other self-sustaining, hardworking Americans is another misrepresentation of the facts. I’ll tell you what it looks like to have your hand-out. If you want to talk about “entitlement” as defined by giving away stuff, as Romney claims that Obama is doing, we can do that. The implication is always that stuff is being given to no-count, lazy, Acorn vote-scamming, wrecking-the economy-subprime-mortgage-cheating Black people. I checked my bank account to see if Obama had made a deposit and nothing so far. Not even a Christmas turkey, but if you want to see hand-out, I’ll give you hand-out.

When I think of entitlements, I think of the too-big-to-fail banks that drove a fleet of trucks up to Congress and felt entitled to relieve the U.S. Treasury of 700 billion of our tax dollars. When I first heard the explanation that they were “too big to fail” I thought:  you can say that…out loud? That’s like saying, you’re too sick to die. They handed Congress a 3-page note that included the fact that there could be no legal repercussions, and flew away in their private jets with golden financial parachutes in tact for their CEOs who were evidently too unsuccessful to go broke. (Don’t try to think about it, it hurts your head.) Now that’s entitlement and White privilege on steroids goosed with Ray Lewis antler spray. 

Sure, we all love to hate the rich, but most everybody loves farmers. Nobody ever thinks of farmers as the 47% on the dole. We generally think of them as God-fearing, industrious, salt-of-the-earth people. Least of all, we don’t think of farmers as corporate entities. However, the small family farm is almost as rare as an 8-track tape. Agribusiness and commodity farming is Wall Street Big Business and they definitely have their hand out, snatching up United States Department of Agriculture farm bill benefits.

According to the Huffington Post, “between 1995 and 2010, 10 percent of farmers collected 75 percent of the subsidies. Cuts to subsidies would disproportionally hurt Big Agribusiness and have little effect on family farmers.”

Lobbyists for agribusinesses get paid big bucks to ensure that their corn and soy commodities continue to be subsidized and remain cheap to buy. The problem is that produce growers of fruits and vegetables are more likely to have to brave the free market without government support, making these products more expensive.

One farmer wrote on his blog: “So why are the nation's commodity farmers perpetually presented as desperate struggling honorable souls who need government largess, while produce growers are generally left to fend for themselves, if not criticized or ridiculed for their products being too expensive or hard to find?”

As the USDA spends money to promote better nutrition to an increasingly obese nation, cheaper soy/corn-based unhealthy foodstuffs are often all that many people can afford. If produce was less expensive, people could afford to be healthier. Clearly farmers need protection from crop damage due to natural forces, but the current public policy on farm aid needs review. 

The image of the farmer doing an honest day’s work puts a shine on the word “entitlement”, but that image suddenly changes when I talk about the fact that 80% of the USDA food subsidy budget goes to Food Stamps. Houston, we have a problem. Fade to black. Food stamps are the ghetto (read black) landmine of the agriculture budget. Republican congressman Paul Ryan, the Darth Vader of economics for the gang who can’t count straight – they offended at least 51% of the electorate with dumb rape rhetoric and thought they could win -- is in love with slashing line items for the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and the ones who didn’t vote for his team. He’d rather enrich the silver spoon set. Racializing budget entitlement cuts gives conservatives a way to seem humane since they pretend they’re only cutting people who are threatening to take America away from White people. Most Americans are smart enough to see through that with Social Security and Medicare, but food stamps is another issue. With racist dog whistles, common sense, the facts, and empathy go out the window.

America is hurting. The U.S. 2011 Census Bureau reported that 8.8 percent of seniors, one million households, are what they call “food insecure.” There are 16.7 million children living under these conditions. Seventy-eight percent of food-insecure households are White and 28% are Black.  The face of Food Stamps in America is predominately White, although African American and other minorities are disproportionately suffering and taking all the heat.

We have to reclaim the word “entitlement” before the safety net is stripped from our most vulnerable Americans. It’s already threadbare. Covert racist tactics are being used to cut the final threads. Entitlements are stigmatized by implying that they are gifts to the undeserving, smarmy, dark underclass -- when they mostly help common, garden-variety, everyday White Americans as well. There is a war on entitlements, a stealth war that is cowardly, quiet, and codified.  In that regard, remember what the Greek, Aeschylus, said: “The first casualty of war is truth.”

Auset Marian Lewis

Auset Marian Lewis is a writer living in Baltimore.