Charity…Entitlements…Do Names Matter?

Van Gogh's The Good Samaritan

What’s in a name? As famously dramatized by Shakespeare…

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Beautifully written? Yes. True? It’s questionable, as some have noted, even when limiting the discussion to matters of romance or other interpersonal relationships.

The question becomes ever more doubtful on matters of public policy.

During the colonial period in America, our understanding of charity was connected with recognition that, to some extent, the indigent may be responsible for their poverty. Benjamin Franklin noted that charity can “provide encouragement for laziness, and supports for folly,” and that, in some cases, “want and misery [is] the proper punishment for, and cautions against, as well as necessary consequences of, idleness and extravagance.” Although Franklin considered it a duty to attempt “to relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures,” he realized that, in cases where the indigent bears some responsibility for his or her own plight, “we had need be very circumspect, lest we do more harm than good.” In other words, it is a mistake for any society to, in effect, reward bad behavior through the provision of charity.

It is this belief that an individual is, and should be, ultimately responsible for the consequences of his or her own behavior that 20th century society considered an “unacceptable overtone” connected with the word charity. Although early Progressives sought to expand the government’s role in the provision of charity,  they also understood that, in order to succeed, they needed to rid the government’s new social programs of the stigma associated with that word.

Words have both literal meaning (i.e., denotation) and emotional power (i.e., connotation). Because they do, manipulating what something is called — its name — can change how people think about that thing. Changing someone’s thinking about a thing or an idea can ultimately change their behavior in relation to that thing or idea. This is the theory behind much of applied psychology — marketing, public relations, public opinion research and, yes, politics. So, Congress is currently considering yet another stimulus — I mean, JOBS bill; illegal aliens are now undocumented workers; Hillary Clinton recently shunned the “liberal” label in favor of “progressive,” and the cap and trade bill has been renamed the American Power Act.

The changing language used to describe government social programs over the years is a prime example of the psychology behind a name. What to the Founders was called charity(1) became welfare during the early 1900′s. Welfare became public assistance beginning in the early to middle 1900′s. And, finally, public assistance morphed again, becoming what we now call entitlements.

Michael Quinion, a British writer and curator of sorts of the English language, explains the transition from charity to welfare in the following manner:

“Originally welfare meant the state or condition of how well one was doing, of one’s happiness, good fortune or prosperity. . . This remained so until the beginning of [the 20th] century, when changes in the relationship between individuals and the state caused an extended sense to appear of an organized effort to maintain the members of a community in a state of well-being, both physical and economic. One reason for this new usage was that older terms, particularly charity, had too many unacceptable overtones relating to recipients’ loss of self-respect and dignity in accepting help. So welfare was useful in expressing similar ideas but without this historical baggage of associations.”

But, Quinion notes, the word welfare and, later, public assistance “also took on the penumbra of associations that charity had before [them]; many examples are recorded of people in need refusing to take assistance, despite being firmly told that ‘you’re entitled to it; it’s not charity‘”(2). Thus, the modern concept of entitlements was born.

Each of these shifts in language was calculated and intentional, a conscious decision by policy makers to make what is essentially a dependent lifestyle more palatable to a people who were once the epitome of independence. It is certainly true that no one need lose self-respect or dignity when they receive something to which they’re entitled. On the contrary, entitlement necessarily infers the right on the part of the recipient to demand what is due, regardless of merit, even when that something must first be taken from someone else. But neither altruism nor a concern for indigent people’s self-esteem was the prime motivating factor in the evolution of charity to entitlement.  What was?  We’ll examine the answer to that question and others in series of upcoming articles regarding social welfare programs, their history, their growth, their current status, their legitimacy, and their effectiveness.


References and notes:

1 – Several other, less common words have been used to describe various types of charity or welfare over the years. Dole can be traced back to Medieval times where it referred to bequests of money or land, usually to a church, with the direction that the income be given to charity or distributed to the local poor at funerals. After WWI, and especially in Britain, dole was used to describe unemployment benefits, thus, being “on the dole.” In the United States, relief was the popular term to refer to public or private aid to people in economic need because of natural disasters, wars, economic upheaval, chronic unemployment, or other conditions that prevent self-sufficiency. However, a distinction was drawn between relief targeting upheavals and natural disasters and relief of chronic social conditions, with the latter usually referred to as welfare. (See

2 – Michael Quinion’s entire article can be found here.

In references to early Progressives, we have linked to a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt, both the transcript and a video clip. There are other, earlier examples. President Theodore Roosevelt also spoke on essentially the same topic, calling his idea the “Square Deal” and he also spoke about “Social and Industrial Justice”.

Further reading on welfare and poverty, if interested here.


About SCrosnoe

I serve as a watchmen on the wall. In that effort, I have been a grassroots activist for over forty years (first in Texas and now in Oklahoma). I am a conservative, limited government freedom lover. I live in Bartlesville Oklahoma.
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