The entitlement mentality: American expectations of the state

Date of Completion

January 1996


History, United States|Political Science, General|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare




This dissertation investigates the intimate connection between the characteristic form of national-level socioeconomic provision in the United States--legal entitlement--and the so-called "welfare state" that evolved there. To decouple entitlements from the context of contemporary budgeting they are defined theoretically, as a generic form of public policy identifiable by certain functional characteristics: the creation of positive, substantive, rights to individual-level public benefits for those who meet statutory eligibility criteria. Entitlements are thus recognized not only as time-bound, modern, fiscal phenomena, but as an ideological voice of the state that has historically employed a legal discourse of difference to constitute citizens as subjects and to direct their cognition and their conduct toward the achievement of a variety of national policy goals. The dissertation utilizes this functional definition of entitlements to show that the origins of significant Federal intervention in the social and economic well-being of U.S. citizens lie not in the social programs of the New Deal era nor even in the Civil War pension system, but rather in the policies of the nascent American state of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Case studies of the pensions enacted for certain veterans of the American Revolution and their survivors and the policies enacted to entitle certain citizens to portions of the "public" lands between the Revolution and the Homestead Act show how the U.S. Congress came to refine the policy strategy of selective entitlement into one of the Federal government's most powerful standard operating procedures. By the time Americans began to think in terms of establishing a "welfare state," they already had an "entitlement state" conditioned to tax and spend to promote a "welfare" that was far from general. Where once a national community of regular, relatively equal citizens might have evolved, the American polity had instead begun to be divided into multiple, overlapping, legally circumscribed categories of "special" clients and claimants for whom difference was a normative principle, and to whom a more universal, social minima-oriented system of provision was difficult to imagine. ^