The entitlement mindset includes much more than government benefits programs.
The word entitlement commonly refers to government benefits to which we are entitled as taxpayers and/or citizens/residents. But there are layers of entitlement in the American psyche far beyond government benefits programs.
Let's start with the government benefits entitlements. The programs most people refer to as entitlements are Social Security and Medicare, which taxpayers pay for with payroll taxes (even if the money just goes into one giant Federal pot).
Beyond these "I paid into them" entitlements are the "welfare" entitlements of Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, SNAP/food stamps, etc., which are paid out of general tax revenues and which are available to anyone who qualifies, regardless of their status as taxpayers.
Buried within Social Security is another large entitlement program for the disabled and dependents (widows and orphans).
Veterans are entitled to benefits as a result of their military service, as are their families.
Employers pay for other employment-related entitlements: Federal and state unemployment, workers compensation and disability insurance, etc.
The entitlement mindset is thus firmly established in the American psyche. If we experience bad luck and/or the negative consequences of poor choices, we have been trained to expect the government at some level to alleviate our suffering, cut us a check or otherwise address our difficulties.
The poisonous problem with the entitlement mindset is intrinsic to human nature: once we "deserve" something, then our minds fill with resentment and greed, and we focus obsessively on creating multiple rationalizations for why we "deserve our fair share."
Eventually this leads to a government that has been reduced to a competitive stripmining operation in which the spoils are divided up amongst the most politically powerful Elites: in other words, the government we now have.
The entitlement mindset atrophies self-reliance, adaptability and flexibility, all key survival traits. If the government will "fix" our health, we no longer feel responsible in the way one does if there is limited government/employer-provided healthcare. If we expect our Social Security retirement regardless of what other conditions may be affecting the global economy or our nation, then we stop being responsible for managing our financial affairs in the same way as one does when there is no "guaranteed" retirement entitlement.
The question isn't whether entitlements are a "right" or not, the question is their sustainability now that the demographic, financial and energy foundations of those promises has eroded. Clearly, the government has a role in providing for public health and safety, but to claim that entitling every citizen to hundreds of thousands of dollars in healthcare is "public health" spending is absurd.
Based on projections of high-birthrates/cheap-oil/high-growth in the 1940s - 1960s, entitlement programs were promised basically forever, with no recognition that conditions might change. Now conditions have changed, demographically, financially and in terms of energy input costs.
We might usefully think of the government as a ship in a sea governed by forces too planetary to influence: the tides, currents, winds, etc. Entitlements are essentially a claim that the small ship of government "should" be able to bend the sea to its will, regardless of what tidal forces, winds and currents are at work.
we can claim it's our "right" not to sink, but gravity and the ocean do not respond to our claims of permanent "rights."
But these direct government entitlements only scratch the surface of our sense of entitlement. We don't just expect healthcare and retirement; if we're honest with ourselves, don't we also expect these other entitlements?
1. Cheap and abundant fuels and energy. We can debate whether this constitutes an implicit "right" or an entitlement, but the point is that Americans expect unlimited fuels and energy at low cost, and if cheap, abundant energy vanishes then they will demand "somebody make this right," with the "somebody" presumably in government and certainly not the individual American or his community.