I have never had a first class ticket on an airplane. I’m not a member of the elite flying club that has their own lounge in the airport. I’ve never had a valet park my car nor can I buy a luxury box seat at a ball game. I can’t afford even balcony tickets at a big name concert.

Once, a long time ago, however, I was asked to be a presenter for a large conference. I was the token rural “expert.” We met in a five star hotel in Hawaii. The other presenters were high priced lawyers. They were nice people. They were used to traveling in a different lane from where I spend my time. It was not unusual for the group of us to pull rank and pass to the front of the line at restaurants, in tourist venues and registration lines. Perhaps because this was a one-time experience for me, I found passing people patiently waiting their turn extremely uncomfortable. It didn’t bother my wealthy lawyer friends in the least. They felt they had earned a “first in line” status. I’m not sure how they had earned it. I think it unlikely that they actually worked harder or for more hours than most of the other people in the line. My fellow presenters, like most people who have achieved status, wealth and power, simply felt entitled to the front of the line, a bigger portion of the pie, a place in the fast lane.

We hear a lot of discussion about government spending on “entitlements.” The people accused of feeling entitled are, however, not wealthy lawyers, financial advisors, hedge fund managers, or corporate executive officers. The entitlements under discussion are those programs which benefit the poor, the disabled and the elderly. They include disability payments, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, heating assistance, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP). The recipients of these programs are often described as drug addicted, lazy, stupid, greedy, and undeserving; people who are looking to live off the hard work of others. We resent those beneath us on the economic ladder who we think haven’t earned the help they are given.

The rich and powerful are not all greedy and self serving. Everyone can tell a story of someone who has given their wealth away to the benefit of others. On the other hand we probably know someone who uses assistance programs in spite of being able bodied yet unwilling to work. Studies again and again, however, show that the poor are more generous than are those who are much wealthier. The poor, in general, give away a higher percentage of what they have than do the rich. People driving BMWs are more likely to ignore pedestrians in the crosswalk and to feel like the rules do not apply to them. Research indicated that the majority of those receiving aid are not cheating the system and really do need help at least for a time.

John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”  We think that someday we will be ushered to the head of the line.  We want to believe that the people responsible for our not getting there are those behind us in line, not those pulling up to the front and having someone else park their car. We would rather fantasize about someday being one of the privileged few than recognize that we really are part of the nation’s struggling masses. We are told if we work hard we too can be entitled to the perks of being rich and famous. Five individuals now control more of our country’s wealth than half of the rest of us. The wealthiest one percent of the world now has more wealth than the other 99 percent of us. Pew Trust research indicates that “Seventy percent of children raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will remain below the middle of the income ladder as adults.” According to Pew researchers, “This stickiness challenges the notion that the United States promotes equality of opportunity.” Most of us are more likely, at some point in our lives, to find ourselves in need of assistance than we are to become a member of the top one percent.

What does it mean to feel entitled? Is it an entitlement to expect not to have to live in poverty after a lifetime of working hard and paying your Social Security taxes? Is it feeling entitled to expect that you should have enough to eat no matter how little you get paid for your work? Is it a sense of entitlement to expect to be able to go to the doctor when you are sick without putting your family in inescapable debt? We been convinced that “entitlements” are those programs which care for the poor, children, the elderly, unemployed and disabled. We have bought the idea that it is the poor who are keeping us in our place near the end of the line. Those of us in the economic middle of the line are kept busy defending our position from those behind us.

We are so busy looking back us that we don’t notice those who have used wealth and power to by-pass the line altogether.
Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains