The recent history of the word “entitlement” shows how a word’s connotation can take over its existence and taint everything it touches.
As opposed to its denotation, or dictionary definition, a word’s connotation is about the associations we have with a word. In the case of the word entitlement, it’s almost all negative.
The phrase “sense of entitlement” is at fault for this negative connotation.
Those with a sense of entitlement are those who expect something for nothing: a handout, a tax break, an unearned privilege—and they deserve it just for being them. This is as opposed to us regular folks who work hard and sacrifice and earn what we have.
Liberals use entitlement this way when describing the rich. Conservatives use it this way when describing welfare cheats.
Thus the term has moved from a word that has actual meaning into the realm of insult, which gets a bit problematic when applied to government programs that people rely on to survive.
Just about all media—right, left, and center—use the term “entitlement program” to describe things like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. The reform of entitlement programs is widely thought to be key to reducing the national debt.
Calling them entitlement programs, though, implies that those who receive them do not deserve them; if a sense of entitlement is bad, an entitlement program is easy to spare. But it’s inaccurate to call these programs entitlements. You have to qualify for them.
In order to get Social Security, you have to have paid into the system. In order to get Medicaid, you have to be sufficiently poor, and in order to get Medicare, you have to have survived to a certain age.
Terms like “qualified benefits” or “needs-based programs” would be more accurate, but, I suspect, those terms would work against the reformers’ political aims.