A Brutal Translation of the ‘Disincentive to Work’

If Obamacare isn’t the biggest drag on the workforce (and it isn’t), what is?

Tea Party member Janis Haddon of Atlanta, Georgia, tries to fend off Obamacare supporter Yasemin Ayarci (L) of Levittown, Pennsylvania, as Ayarci counter protests a Tea Party rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court of March 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court continued to hear oral arguments on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Feb. 6, 2014, 4:03 a.m.

The biggest “dis­in­cent­ive for people to work” is not Obama­care. It’s the lack of jobs in a fast-chan­ging, post-in­dus­tri­al eco­nomy that’s leav­ing mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans be­hind.

These people need a health in­sur­ance sys­tem that fol­lows them from job to grind­ing job — that gives them flex­ib­il­ity to seek re­train­ing and, for a lucky few, a new ca­reer path geared to the high-tech eco­nomy.

The Af­ford­ab­il­ity Care Act is far from per­fect. It needs to evolve with bi­par­tis­an think­ing. But it’s at least a step to­ward re­cog­niz­ing that the em­ploy­ee-based in­sur­ance sys­tem built for the 20th cen­tury is in­ad­equate for this one.

Rather than an hon­est de­bate about the fu­ture of the U.S. health care sys­tem, the con­ver­sa­tion in Wash­ing­ton has been de­railed by the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s cyn­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice ana­lys­is.

The GOP has seized on CBO’s con­clu­sion that the equi­val­ent of more than 2 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans would use Obama­care sub­sidies to leave the work­force. No longer tied to jobs merely to cling to health in­sur­ance, some people will re­tire early, work part time, start a busi­ness, or spend more time with their fam­il­ies.

CBO Dir­ect­or Douglas El­men­d­orf, speak­ing in bur­eau­crat­ic-ese, told Con­gress that Obama­care “cre­ates a dis­in­cent­ive for people to work.”

Cue the out­rage. Re­pub­lic­ans ini­tially twis­ted the ana­lys­is to sug­gest that Obama­care would throw 2 mil­lion people out of work. Quickly proven wrong, they shif­ted their at­tack. They warned that mil­lions of lazy, un­mo­tiv­ated Amer­ic­ans would take ad­vant­age of the law to live on the gov­ern­ment dole.

The GOP ar­gu­ment takes a dim view of Amer­ic­ans. It as­sumes that the only reas­on mil­lions of people work is for com­pany health care in­sur­ance — that there is no in­ner drive to as­cend eco­nom­ic­ally and so­cially. Give me a gov­ern­ment check and to hell with the Amer­ic­an Dream.

That may be true for some Amer­ic­ans, but cer­tainly not for most. The GOP ar­gu­ment has more than a whiff of Re­agan-era ra­cial “wel­fare queen” polit­ics.

Good or bad, Obama­care is of the same fam­ily as So­cial Se­cur­ity, Medi­care, Medi­caid, and food stamps — gov­ern­ment pro­grams cre­ated in the in­dus­tri­al era as a so-called safety net for Amer­ic­ans left be­hind in that eco­nomy. At their best, the so­cial pro­grams served also as a spring­board to help people climb out of poverty and in­to the middle and up­per classes.

Good or bad, Obama­care (or a bet­ter al­tern­at­ive, Re­pub­lic­ans) at­tempts to give post-in­dus­tri­al Amer­ic­ans a safety net and spring­board. The un­em­ploy­ment rate is high, dur­able un­em­ploy­ment high­er. Work­ers today are tak­ing home their smal­lest slice of U.S. in­come on re­cord. The eco­nomy lost 8.7 mil­lion jobs from its peak in early 2008, half from con­struc­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing. Factor­ing in pop­u­la­tion growth, the eco­nomy still needs about 7.9 mil­lion jobs to re­turn to prere­ces­sion levels.

Nearly 50 mil­lion people live in poverty. Nearly 50 mil­lion live without health in­sur­ance. Nearly 50 mil­lion re­ceive food stamps, the highest num­ber since the pro­gram began in 1969. The av­er­age re­cip­i­ent gets $133 a month in food aid. Try liv­ing on that.

Re­pub­lic­ans want to cut food stamps, ar­guing that the pro­gram is rife with ab­use and is a dis­in­cent­ive to work. No doubt there is some truth to their ar­gu­ment, and there may be a bet­ter food pro­gram for the 21st cen­tury.

But this is also true: The biggest dis­in­cent­ive to work is not $133 a month in food stamps. It’s the lack of a de­cent job.

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