Our Unsustainable Entitlement Nation

Published September 26, 2012

When we talk about recipients of entitlements, we are typically referring to either of two kinds of Americans: the poor and the elderly. For decades, those have been the two areas of the population we have seen fit to subsidize through an alphabet soup of programs. Increasingly, however, that’s only where the entitlement conversation begins, not where it ends. Former President Bill Clinton acknowledged this when he referred to Medicaid as an entitlement for “middle-class families” in his remarks to the Democratic convention. He’s right: Thanks to President Barack Obama’s health care law and the expansion of a variety of other programs, Medicaid is covering more children in families making more than $60,000 a year. The political liability of Medicaid is that most of its recipients don’t vote. Locking more middle-income voters into these redistributionist programs is therefore a major aim of those who favor big government — even those who once pronounced its era over. In the larger sense, this growth in redistribution creates a climate where everyone is convinced that, in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, prosperity can be achieved by “robbing selective Peter to pay for collective Paul.” The next population already demanding entitlement consideration isn’t the old or the poor, but the young and overeducated — those saddled with expensive college educations they find to be far less useful in the job market than their counselors had claimed. One such student, a 25-year-old Cincinnati woman, recently wrote about her burden of having two degrees, complaining she is saddled with $188,307.22 in student debt, “all of which is my sole financial responsibility” and pronouncing the dawn of a debt “epidemic.” She demanded “answers and clarity as to why this happened. How did I arrive at this position in life so financially handicapped and disenfranchised? I followed societal expectations, earned an education and am employed. … I am owed answers simply because I have the right to pursue happiness.” The answers are simple: This is the downside of being an overeducated 25-year-old in an economy that needs more welders and fewer sociology majors, and where it costs a lot more to be the latter than the former. Ending up nearly $200,000 in debt was entirely this woman’s choice, nothing she was forced to do. We can be sympathetic with her plight without wanting to extract more tax money to bail her out for her bad decision. Debt is no more an epidemic than being fat is an epidemic. If repaying a debt means we can’t buy a desired McMansion or flashy car, that’s nobody’s fault but your own. Think before you take on debt, or you will be left to deal with the consequences. Unless, of course, we take the path toward a redistributionist society where no one has to pay for their bad judgments. And that, unfortunately, is a real possibility. We would be wise to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, ‘Lay it not too much to heart.’ Let them adopt the maxim, ‘Better luck next time;’ and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.” America has thrived as a place where luck was made, not granted by government diktat. The decision that faces us now is a simple one: Either we are going to return to being a society and an economy where you have the right to pursue happiness, which allows for people to fail and has a safety net for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick to keep them falling too far or starving in the street … or we will have a society built on a system of spoils and sloth, where redistribution and bailouts are a constant and ever-present aspect of life, and government seeks to guarantee happiness for all — and fails. • Domenech is managing editor of Health Care News.