Sunday, September 18, 2011

Entitlement vs. Personal Responsibility

The word entitlement has a negative connotation. It implies a right to something  whether that something is earned or not. Entitlement thinking can be defined as a selfish concern for oneself without regard for the burden it places on others. I firmly believe that entitlement thinking is NOT the norm. It occurs when people do not feel connected to and responsible for the organizations to which they belong. I further believe that we all want to take personal responsibility for ourselves and will do so if given the opportunity. Most people do not desire handouts, but most appreciate a helping hand when they are in need of one. 

So, why does a group, a company, a school, or a society have a culture void of personal responsibility?  Without a common purpose or shared commitment, the group culture can degrade into an attitude of entitlement thinking where everyone only looks after themselves. On the other hand, within great institutions that have a shared purpose, people with work tirelessly for the common good. 

I have an on-going debate with my parents about our government entitlements, particularly those that benefit seniors like them. As our national debt reaches unsustainable levels, government entitlement programs that assist elderly Americans may be affected. We are currently transferring wealth from young working Americans to the elderly, many of whom are more well-to-do than those younger workers. When I offer my opinion that means testing should be added to programs such as Medicare and Social Security, my parents have a compelling alternative viewpoint. They ask why they should be penalized for taking personal responsibility throughout their lives. 

When my parents were young, they lived frugally and did not spend on frivolous or luxury items. They both worked very hard, continued their educations at night, and did modestly well in their professional careers. They invested their savings and are secure and happy in their retirement. On the other hand, others of their generation who had equally successful careers lived at or beyond their means and did not save for retirement. Many of those people are now dependent upon government entitlements to maintain reasonable lifestyles. My parents do not see the logic in means testing because it appears to punish them for self-discipline and personal responsibility.

Should we hold each other totally accountable for our choices and actions? How should we encourage personal responsibility and at the same time provide a social safety net for those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own? I do not pretend to have answers, but these are questions that we must address to reform government entitlement programs. I do believe that ultimately we need to change the structure of government entitlements to one that inspires individual accountability and personal responsibility. 

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