Yes, Social Security Is an ‘Entitlement’ — Literally

Q: In a recent column, you advised a 55-year-old man who had just lost his job and had some back problems to file for Social Security disability benefits. To quote from your column: “It doesn’t hurt to try filing for disability benefits.” That’s what’s wrong with our country today. We have an entitlement culture. Everyone thinks they are due something from the government. And you are just perpetuating this entitlement problem by encouraging this guy to file for Social Security benefits!

Q: Your recent column advising a man to file for disability benefits really ticked me off. You [blankety-blank] liberals never met a government program you didn’t like. And by trying to get as many people as possible on the taxpayer’s gravy train, you’re just adding to the problem. No wonder our country is in such a mess. We need to start cutting government programs, not encouraging more people to apply for them!

A: Gosh, sometimes I write what I think is the simplest little column trying to help a guy in a tough situation — and I catch all kinds of grief for it. These two emails are just a sampling of the many I received chastising me for suggesting that a man file for Social Security disability benefits. And some of the responses I got were downright mean and nasty! I guess I pushed a few buttons that are indicative of the conservative “get the government off my back” mood our country seems to be in.

Here was the story. A 55-year old man had worked at the same job for the past 30-plus years and had recently been laid off. He said he was looking for work but wasn’t having any success. He mentioned that he had severe back pain and although he was reluctant to do so, his wife wanted him to file for Social Security disability benefits. He emailed me asking what chance I thought he had of qualifying for such benefits.

In my column, I essentially told him two things. First, I told him the obvious: He would have no chance if he never filed for disability benefits. And then I did say that it wouldn’t hurt to try filing for such benefits, and I told him how to do so. But the second thing I told him is that I thought there was a pretty good chance he would be considered simply unemployed and not disabled.

I explained that to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must have an impairment so severe that it is expected to keep you out of work for at least 12 months. Because he himself said he was looking for work, it sounded to me like he wouldn’t meet that legal definition of a disabling condition.

But here is the point: He has every right in the world to file for Social Security disability benefits. We all do. And it’s my job to tell him so. In this guy’s case, he worked and paid Social Security taxes for more than 30 years. He’s out of work. He has a medical condition that is causing him pain. And I have learned in four decades of working with the Social Security program that many people who file for Social Security disability benefits have more medical problems than they initially allege.

For example, in addition to his back problems, this guy might have high blood pressure. He might have a little heart tremor. He might have hearing loss. His back pain alone may not be enough to qualify him for benefits. But a combination of impairments might make him legally disabled.

I don’t know anything about the man other than what he wrote in his short email. But I would have been entirely negligent had I answered him by saying something like: “You’ve got a bad back. Well that’s tough! I’ve got a bad back, too. You are not eligible for Social Security disability benefits, and you have no right to apply for them!”

I guess that’s the message all the people who got upset with my answer wanted me to deliver to this guy.

Many people throw around the term “entitlements,” as if all government programs are free giveaways. And according to these folks, everyone today feels entitled to something, and that’s why this country is going to you-know-where in a hand basket! They are especially upset with those “[blankety blank] liberals,” who just encourage everyone to get on the entitlement train. And if you listen to the anti-government crowd, they’ll tell you that Social Security is the lead car on that gravy train.

Well, Social Security truly and literally is an “entitlement” program. Retirement, disability, and survivor’s benefits make up what is known as Title II of the Social Security Act. And the law says that if you work and pay taxes for a required amount of time and if you meet all the other eligibility requirements, you are indeed entitled to Social Security benefits.

I must, however, make this important semantic point: There is a difference between being eligible for a government benefit and being entitled to it. On the very first day of my training class, when I joined the Social Security Administration over 40 years ago, I was taught that everyone who works and pays taxes is potentially “eligible” for Social Security benefits, but you don’t actually become “entitled” to them until you file and sign a legal application for benefits and your claim is approved.

Like it or not, Social Security is an entitlement program. And as taxpayers, each one of us has every right to apply for such benefits.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at



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