American Culture

Roundtable: What do Americans really "deserve"?

Scrogues ConverseEverybody else’s job seems easy. The guy at the gym is certain he has a simple herbal remedy that will cure almost anything. Doctors think it would be a few minutes’ work to sort out the tax code. And engineers have quick and easy solutions for the most difficult social problems. People understand that what they do is complicated—no doctor would entertain the premise that ginseng will cure anything nor would any engineer ever suggest that designing a bridge is simple or quick, but things other people do, now that’s a snap.

Blogging is no exception. If you don’t actually do it, it seems pretty easy. Just sit down, type for awhile, hit “post” and voila. Of course, it’s not at all that easy. Coming up with ideas can be excruciating (read Mark Twain’s piece about being a newspaper columnist in Roughing It). The actual writing can be agony (just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein—attributed to many). And the process of organizing thoughts and fact checking tedious and lengthy.

Even the process of deciding to push the “post” button can be a challenge. This week we received an excellent contribution from Kate Torok on the topic of maternity leave. It touched off an extraordinarily intense and complicated offline discussion on the S&R staff discussion group. We thought we’d share this discussion, both for its intrinsic interest but also as an example of what goes on behind the scenes of a small site trying our best to not just put out content, but to do content that is relevant and thoughtful.


One thing I have noticed is the post-feminist trend toward using the word “deserve.” I hear it all the time, especially from women, and especially from women born after 1960. The phrase “I deserve happiness” drives me crazy. Why do you “deserve” it? Were you especially good in a past life?

I dont think people deserve much in life. I think the fact that I have a US passport and a nice life is my good luck, but there’s no universe in which I “deserve” it.

I particularly don’t think people deserve to have someone else pay for something they want. I think Dr. Sammy should get health insurance, but not because he “deserves” it, but rather because access to health should be part of a cohesive and pleasant society. I even think the argument that people deserve redress for wrongs done to their ancestors, e.g., Native Americans, is dubious. Their ancestors deserved redress. The great-great-great grandchildren? Maybe.

I don’t see how anyone deserves more maternity leave. If someone “deserves” maternity or paternity leave, then it seems to me that corporations (who after all are people, too, according to Mitt) deserve to not hire people who plan to have families, because those employees cost more.

I also don’t see how someone who has a child and uses up their vacation deserves more time off than someone who does the same job and chooses not to have a child. Why should the author deserve maternity leave and Sammy not?

I am all in favor of maternity and paternity leave, but I would also give sabbatical leave to non-parents (as Australia does). And I am in favor of it because it makes for a more pleasant society, not because anyone deserves it.

Sam Smith:

That last bit reminds me of an argument that raged through a company I worked for back in the late ’90s. To wit, how come smokers got smoke breaks while the rest of us got stay chained to our desks?

Russ Wellen:

In the same vein, pro-choice advocates make a mistake when they talk about a woman’s right to control her own body. That’s a self-destructive framing that waves a red flag at pro-lifers. They just think it’s another way of saying “I reserve the right to murder my baby: stop me before I kill again.”

A better phrase for pro-choice might be that banning abortion “threatens the integrity of the family” because of the strain it puts on families who’s teenage daughter is pregnant or on older moms who can’t afford another mouth to feed.

On a related matter, make sure never to use the phrase “entitlement programs” because it makes speaking up for Social Security sound like “I deserve money for nothing” to conservatives.


I am pro-choice, but I actually think of pro-choice as not forcing someone to have a child they don’t want or face a unsafe illegal procedure.

And the whole abortion argument makes me queasy. Had my wife asked my opinion (which she didn’t) I would have chosen abortion rather than have our first child. We were poor, I was just recovering from cancer, had no insurance, etc. What a horrible, irrevocable mistake that would have been. I have been terrified of abortion ever since. I could live with a pro-life country. This is probably the only place I agree with slugs like Nino.

But yes, to your point, framing matters, and framing maternity leave as “deserves” is just wrong.

 Sam Smith:

Otherwise: Everything is context. You’re reading the word “deserve” in an individualist frame, and that is in fact how Kate was using it, but what happens if the word is interpreted within the bounds of what you say here – the social context, the context of an advanced, functioning society, instead of in a social Darwinian milieu?

Yeah, a lot of people say “I deserve” and yeah, a lot of people act pretty entitled. I know how hard I’ve worked just to stay alive and hearing whining for more more more from people who haven’t begun to understand what it is to struggle even a little drives me nuts, too. But what if the phrase is “we deserve,” and what if “deserve” is less about entitlement that what we have earned as a society, what we as a society genuinely benefit from? That changes the game a little.

As Russ says, framing matters….


“I deserve” is a lot like the conservative “I earned.” How often is that meant to connote “with no help”? An old boss had that attitude, even though I knew his father gave him the money to start the business and rescued his ass multiple times. Or my grandfather, who liked to point out how much governmental help his whole generation got and now pretends like it was all sweat of the brow.

I’m coming to the conclusion that both sides of the American political divide have very strange conceptions of societal context.

Maybe what we all deserve is an economic system wherein a decent life is possible with a single earner so that we can rebuild our family values and there’s enough for even liberals to be stay-at-home moms or dads.

Cat White:

OK, so “deserve” could be a synonym for “entitled.” In some ways.

It seems to me that both males and females are on the “I deserve happiness” kick – but that genre of “deserve” might be an isolated case in its universality. I know I’ve been there – divorce or prozac? People in my parents generation seemed to choose Prozac as happiness was not in the wedding vows but commitment was. I wasn’t really looking for happiness, per se, so much as sanity.

But that’s sort of isolated.

In the Declaration of Independence, TJ used the high-falutin’ “endowed by their creator” rather than “deserve” or “entitled to.” It gives the imprimatur of Some Things having been bestowed upon humans by a higher power and that’s GOOD as opposed to humans just going after those things which would make them Spoiled. The DoI talks about “pursuit of happiness” (rather than property), so the “H” word is pretty ingrained in the American character.

But we get to “pursue” happiness, not necessarily achieve it.

And, it wasn’t important enough to make it into the Constitution.

It seems that the Constitution does spell out some of what we “deserve” and it can be argued that health care, regardless of commerce and tax clauses, is implied by government promoting the general welfare. But that’s a whole other issue.

I wasn’t brought up with the idea of entitlement – I took working for things seriously. I took earning things – maybe including happiness – seriously. If I ended up in a bad relationship, I had to at least consider that I had earned the unhappiness. When I think of “deserving” I think “in spite of any effort or work on my part” or “just because.”

I guess the one I can’t explain is abortion, which requires one to get pregnant. I couldn’t do that. Probably the one thing in my life that I can say – “Did I DESERVE to be infertile?” – and answer, “no.” I didn’t work for that. Although I have to question whether I did influence it at some level because I really HATED the pain and mess associated with periods (sorry for the reference guys) – maybe I thought myself into infertility in my early teens.

But I don’t go around saying “I deserve a new dress.” I might want it, I might be able to afford it, or otherwise justify it, but “deserve it?” Nah. On the other hand, do I say I deserve a glass of BIG glass of water or a small glass of Gatorade after riding my bike home from work – I might say that even though, truthfully, I earned it.

If I say “I earned” or “I worked for” something, do I have to be considered a conservative?  I’ve gotten lots of help – and I acknowledge that.


I have heard more than one middle-aged guy explain an affair with the “I deserve” line. I do think that shows like Oprah and inane books like Eat Pray Love have associated it more with women, but it is the same phenomenom, and just because I hear it more often from women doesn’t mean I am correct or that women feel that way more than men.

Lisa Wright:

I’m gonna side with parents on this one in terms of leave being essential and generally what is offered is too short.

I think that leave is important on many levels, the least of which being it is hard work growing and birthing a person, and then ensuring it thrives in its first months. Do I think that because they “deserve” parental leave that as a non-parent I “deserve” time to sit around drinking wine and making art? Not so much. Maybe if our society was more centered around the good of said society instead of the individual and we had programs in place to ensure that we all lived good, worthwhile lives then I would feel differently, but then maybe we wouldn’t be having a conversation about “deserving.”

Also, I’ll see your Eat Pray Love and raise you The Game. You can hate Eat Pray Love all you want, but it’s mainly a navel-gazing attempt at self enlightenment. I’m not even sure that it qualifies as someone thinking they’re deserving. It’s just sort of self-centered, whereas the assholes who buy into The Game make bars and other social scenes miserable for EVERYone, regardless of whether they want to be involved or not.


Not at all does it make you conservative, Cat. I was just saying that conservatives like playing that card almost as much as they like decrying the “entitled” prerogative of liberals.

I use a rule of opposites: those who cry loudly about what they’ve earned probably haven’t; those who cry loudly about what they deserve probably don’t. And whatever the US government accuses other nations of doing is probably exactly what it’s doing.

Sam Smith:

Re “earning”: When I say I earned something, I understand that accomplishment, hopefully, in a largish context. For instance, some folks were born into connections and wealth and I by god earned every chance I ever got. This is true, assuming a certain context. But not true at all in another.

For instance, if you wanted to argue with me, you’d point out how I benefited from scholarship and grant programs that aren’t available to 99.9999% of the people who ever lived. And I’d say yes, no doubt. So I use these terms in a context that I assume we both understand – the late 20th century America context. If I’m talking to someone who doesn’t share that context, I will use different language because you can be born on the wrong side of the tracks in the US and still be better off and have more opportunity than just about anybody else on the planet.

These days, though, we have different groups and different people using the same words and assuming that there’s a shared context when there isn’t. Words like “deserve” and “earn,” for instance.

Chris Mackowski:

I’ve been mulling this over all day from an evolutionary/biological context. If our main biological imperative is to reproduce and raise our young, it sure seems that our society (as an evolutionary advantage) could do more to empower us to be more effective parents.

Of course, being an enlightened society, we’re encouraged to think beyond our biological hardwiring, so it’s no surprise that our society fails us in something so fundamentally associated with our biology. In fact, our society devalues and, in many ways, disregards parenting altogether in favor of a greater emphasis on, say, making money. Most of us would say we value good parenting over money, but the social structures we operate in say differently—otherwise, Kate wouldn’t have a grief to air in the first place.

Not all societies have evolved along the same path ours has—something else Kate has pointed out. Parenting falls higher on the list of social priorities. From an evolutionary perspective, there’s no way to yet tell which sociological path is a better adaptation for long-term species survival. From the very personal perspective of a parent, though, it’s disheartening to see that other societies have said what ours does not: Yes, parents DO “deserve” to have it a little easier as they try to fulfill one of their most basic biological imperatives.

Sociology vs. Biology—Nurture vs. Nature. Hmmmmm….

Of course natural selection tells us that no parent “deserves” to raise his/her offspring and that no offspring “deserves” a good upbringing. In the wild, parents get harried by predators, weather, shortages of food and water, parasites, and a host of other things. Those of us living in the First World tend to forget that simple fact because most of us are so removed from those things. In exchange, parents get harried with things like jobs, insurance, traffic, health care systems, and babysitters—socially constructed obstacles rather than natural. In that context, maybe parents do deserve a break because there’s a moral component to the socially constructed world that doesn’t exist in the natural world.

Finally, since it was her post that got all this started, we invited Kate Torok to have the last word.

I have responses swirling around in my head, but can’t quite figure out how to verbalize it so that it makes good sense. I’m finding myself becoming a little defensive, because while I agree that some of my generation and the younger generation do suffer from the sense of entitlement many spoke of, I don’t think I fall in that category.

I have worked my ass off leading up to, during, and after college and while I’m still what some may consider young, I feel I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and hours into my industry and profession. And all of that has been put into the system as well, monetarily speaking. I’ve contributed to the system for years now, all the while paying back monstrous student loans (which I supposed I earned, in a sense). Perhaps it’s me feeling like the overall system just sucks, and that when things happen in my life, as they do for many others, that the system would be able to throw me a bone.

My father – the hardest working, most honest man I know – worked in the airline industry for over 25 years. He worked his way up the ladder, put up with a lot of crap, and came home stressed more days than not. After 9/11, he, along with thousands of others, lost his job. He was too young to retire, so that was it. He was devastated. It was all he knew, and it took him a long time to find a new job and path in life. I was done with college, but had two younger sisters in the middle of their education. I remember my mom telling him to take some time, and get the unemployment checks because, after all, he deserved them. He had contributed to the system for over 25 years and through no fault of his own, he now needed a little bit of help. I know how hard it was for him to take that benefit, and he applied for dozens of jobs on a weekly basis in a hurry to get back to where he was. But I think he did deserve the help. He worked hard to get it.

Now, I do not mean to compare losing a job to having a baby. But, it is all one system after all, isn’t it? Shouldn’t people who work hard and contribute reap some benefit when they need a little help? It’s not the government’s fault that I got pregnant, but it isn’t their fault when people have on-the-job accidents and have to collect short-term disability either. Nor is it their fault when some people have to take a medical leave for mental illness. But those people get time and some pay.

I’m not asking for early retirement here, with full pay and benefits. I’m just asking for a little more time to start my daughter’s life off right, and spend as much time as possible with her.

14 replies »

  1. This is a pretty interesting discussion all on its own. I’d like to see more of this at S&R. I liked the article that started the discussion also.

    • Thanks Robert. I constantly bitch to some of my colleagues that what goes on behind the scenes is often better than what we publish, with the hint being that they should copy and paste it into a post.

  2. We keep trying to do these kinds of things here, and sometimes they work, but more often they don’t. This one mostly did, so it was nice to put it up.

  3. There are two overriding issues here, as I see it. One is the subject of birth right. Simply by virtue of being born into a country, an individual “deserves” something or is “entitled” to something. That’s the contract citizens have with the state. Otherwise, your mother could have had you in the outback.

    The other issue is that I think not enough Americans actually believe they “deserve” much from life or the state. Because of lack of self-esteem or a feeling of self-worth, most don’t think they or other citizens are entitled to much. We’d really rather suffer.

  4. This is how I wish more discussions in everyday life would go, and this is a good example to set and reinforce as you can. It’s a solid, thoughtful group of contributors and editors you have there. People say exactly what they mean at times, but often there is a gap that’s filled cultural and psychological reflexes expressed through lax colloquial American English, so both thought and words can be short of precision and completeness. Politicians and think-tanks exploit this and nudge that rhetoric toward their ends. Thoughtful discussions like this peel back those superficial layers, expose what’s implied, and the manipulation. I can learn and improve where I might fall into those traps too.

    • Thanks, Samantha. We try to be intelligent here as best we can, and the truth is that I’m insanely proud of the smarts that my colleagues display here. It’s educational for me and inspiring to boot. It’s wonderful to hear from a reader who values thoughtfulness, as well. We get a wide range of commenters here and I wish more were like you.

      By the way, if you like thoughtful, you really want to read Wufnik’s latest on books. I barely know enough to manage an informed comment on it…

  5. Samantha, thanks. I wish, like Sam does, we had more thoughtful commenters such as you. Please come back often.

  6. To Kate.

    “I have worked my ass off before, during and after college…” and presumably you have been paid for that in terms of wages and access to opportunity. Now you are asking for more pay for a task already completed. Isn’t that like a plumber who shows up a year later, asks if the toilet is still working, and presents you another bill? If you wanted more leave, you should have taken a different job that would give you more.

    And to my original question, why do you deserve more time off than a non-parent?

    Why, because you are a good hard-working person and you want it. Which, whether you are comfortable with it or not, is pretty much the definition of feeling “entitled.”

  7. Just throwing this out there for consideration. I see the whole issue of maternity leave as a “simple” matter of employment compensation. Keeping to nice round, easily divisible numbers, let’s say someone makes $48,000/year. Employer pays 100% major medical for employee only, not spouse and kids. The employer’s rate is $350/month. That’s $4200/year, making the actual compensation $52,200/year, of which some is applied to a specific benefit. This much I think we can agree on by way of a general example.

    After that, things might get iffy. First, why not drop the word “maternity” and use “personal” when describing the leave. Maternity leave is available, after all, only to child-bearing women. Gay partners (married, civilly united, or otherwise) get left in the cold on that deal (with the possible exception of IVF). Non-childbearing women (whether due to age, health, choice, whatever), get left in the cold. Maybe fathers could be pulled into a maternity benefit on the grounds of paternity, but non-childrearing men (whether due to age, health, choice, whatever) get left in the cold. If we drop the exclusive nature of this “maternity” benefit and make it something available to all, I could see it as equitable.

    As for funding it, law might make it mandatory (and maybe should), but the value of such leave is a negotiable matter between employer and employee. Say you’re interviewing for a job. Let’s say the compensation package offered is valued at a total of $48k/year salary plus 12 weeks optional personal leave per calendar year. Need 12 weeks off? That’s okay. Salary for the subsequent year goes down to compensate, so long as the total value for a floating 52-week period comes out to $48,000. Optional personal leave would be simple enough to pro-rate so it could be parceled it out in smaller amounts if needed. I think it would be prudent, however, to limit such leaves to some frequency, like no more than once a year. Only took 3 weeks but 4 months later wish you’d taken 12? So sorry. For that matter, as a benefit, perhaps it should only be available after some probationary period.

    The thing is, I’m thoroughly pro-labor, pro-worker, but I’m also sensitive to the needs a business has if it’s going to run with any reasonable chance of success. Employer and employee agree at the outset that the value offered by the employee = the total of the compensation package. Part of the value the employee offers is attendance to do the job for which they are hired. Our places of employment could certainly stand to develop some creative flexibility when it comes to these kinds of compensation packages, and not merely for credentialed professionals…I see it as an across the board thing (though how anyone would take the deal on minimum wage is beyond me). Short of a mandate, I don’t see it happening on a wide scale, though. The labor market right now is abysmal and employers have the hiring advantage.

    In any event, as issues go, I’m human enough to sympathize, but it’s a limited sympathy. As a single person, I help the government subsidize marriage (for some, but not for all) by paying higher taxes than my married counterparts. Tit for tat, I’m I getting a bit of extra road for that support? Maybe extra minutes of education? Am I more or less militarily secure because I’m paying extra, solely by virtue of the fact that I don’t have a state-sanctioned relationship with someone of the approved subset of someones?

    Personally, I think a state-mandated personal leave of negotiable value is a fine idea. For that matter, I think it should the value of the leave should be in addition to minimum wage, so as to not devalue minimum wage. I could, conceivably, favor a free-market solution should one that makes sense ever be offered. Short of making it something available to all employees, however, I think “leave for some” throws a tremendous wrench in the works when it comes to valuing compensation packages, and this when we already have issues with gender-based pay inequity.

  8. Frank–yes. That’s exactly where I am coming from.

    In my view, asking for special treatment because you chose to have a child is selfish. For the record, I have two kids, and my daughter has just had our first grandchild eight weeks or so ago and goes back to work Aug 1. So I empathize, but that doesn’t mean I agree with the original argument.

    Obviously though, we live in a nation where everyone and everything is against entitlement, except for themselves–defense industry, pharma industry, banks, farmers, old people, black people, mothers, etc.

    • Wait a second. Let’s examine the assumption here. Underneath Otherwise’s suggestion is an important, yet unacknowledged and unexamined assumption as to the appropriate unit of measurement for policy making. In this view, that unit of measurement is the individual. Efficacy is evaluated according to whether or not one person gets something that the other person doesn’t. Now, this is very American, but I’d argue that it’s not necessarily the best approach.

      If the unit of measurement is what’s good for the society, then we would CERTAINLY make allowances for parents in any case where X would benefit early childhood development. Society has a clear vested interest in those little ones being as healthy and smart as they possibly can, and if that goal is served by mom and/or dad being home for an extra month or two, then you absolutely positively do X because it benefits the society in the long run.

      From this perspective, the individualist paradigm is willing to do tangible damage to the society by putting the selfish interests of individuals ahead of what’s best for everyone in the big picture and the long term.

  9. Ah, the system. To the best of my knowledge, a fair and equitable one has never been established and maintained. The Europeans may have been close for a while after WWII, given that for how high their personal taxes were, people seemed to manage a good life.

    For Americans, the problems are a little more complex. We’ve made a choice that we value money and all that it can buy more than anything else (system-wise); therefore, we just don’t even really consider ideas like nearly free higher education or 5 weeks vacation or parental leave. People value money and the status attached to it so they live to work. People with more control over the system value money and the status attached to it so they wring every penny of surplus labor value from workers that they can.

    Add to this the American myth of rugged individualism and strange fealty to a particular form of Capitalist practice and you’ve got a system where it is possible to feel like you’ve earned everything you believe yourself entitled to … and you still feel like you’re getting screwed by the system.

    The very rich in America really do believe that they’re being screwed by the tax code.

    It’s a beautiful system if you happen to occupy a position that benefits from setting people against one another and taking from both. That would be the position occupied by our political parties and the appartchiks who make a life of them. And that’s why the system’s not going to change.

    …well, that and America’s rather ugly adherence to Social Darwinism based on an incorrect and outmoded understanding of biological evolution misapplied to social situations. (Never mind all the people who don’t believe in biological evolution but do believe in Social Darwinism.)