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CBO Report Shows How Obamacare Helps Working Poor

by Jeff Madrick

Feb 10, 2014 | Economy


The attack on the Affordable Care Act by conservative Republicans after the release of the Congressional Budget Office’s new report was desperate. Bravo to much of the media for setting the story straight almost immediately. But so strong is the anti-government bias involving social policy that critics hardly stopped to think.

No, businesses were not about to issue a couple of million pink slips, as Senate Republicans put it. Rather, because of the subsidy to buy health care, people could choose to quit their jobs or work fewer hours and lead a marginally better life. Heaven forbid.

Never mind the conservative fear-mongering. The Affordable Care Act’s subsidies will boost the economy and free workers who were locked into their jobs.

And that’s the real rub. Republicans must think this is a new dole for the undeserving. But actually, it’s another example of how perverse and unfair the health care system in America is. In other words, according to CBO estimates, 2 million people or so were basically working so they could get insurance. Working makes acquiring health care cheaper because you are in a group plan and the employer will often help subsidize the price. (Of course, that subsidy partly results in lower wages for the worker.)

Because many Americans work just to get health care, they are locked into their jobs. And this may reduce their desire to bargain for higher wages out of fear of being fired.

A few points should be kept in mind. The determinedly objective CBO is by no means always right. It is a peculiar construction, in fact. The CBO is not allowed to make sensible assumptions about the economy, but instead has to stick to the current law. So it can’t anticipate, except as an exception to the main forecast, a change in tax rates or stimulus. The CBO builds in a recovery from a recession automatically—a clockwork interpretation of what economists know as Say’s Law, which holds that economies will bounce back automatically as wages, prices, and interest rates stagnate or fall. This notion was anathema to John Maynard Keynes. The CBO makes absurdly precise projections of events 10, 20, and 30 years out. All the while, it wears the mask of objectivity.

The CBO’s estimate that Obamacare will result in 2 million people or so leaving the workforce, it admits, is “substantially uncertain.” There’s an understatement. Just a couple of years ago, it figured the number to be much less. But it says it did a more comprehensive analysis and included a few more recent studies, mostly about cuts in Medicaid. Some studies show that when a couple of states cut funding for Medicaid, people started looking for work. Other studies show little impact, however.

A subsidy for the poor, as Obamacare is, benefits the poor. As the working poor make more money, however, the subsidy diminishes. They may leave their jobs as a result, now able to afford health care on their own.

The CBO also said, however, that Obamacare “will boost overall demand for goods and services over the next few years because the people who will benefit from the expansion of Medicaid and from access to the exchange subsidies are predominantly in lower-income households and thus are likely to spend a considerable fraction of their additional resources on goods and services.”

In contrast, people who will pay the modest increase in taxes to support the subsidies “are predominantly in higher-income households and are likely to change their spending to a lesser degree.” Just what the doctored ordered for a sick economy!

In addition, the drop in total labor compensation as people quit their jobs will be less than the drop in the number of hours worked. Fewer hours worked but not as much lost in income. Pretty good policy.

Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative. He writes for the Next New Deal, where this originally appeared.

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