It's perfectly fine to fisk the administration for backtracking on Obama's pledge not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $250,000. Why? Because Obama's people now say they won't rule out taxing employer-sponsored health benefits. (As it stands, health benefits you get through an employer are not subject to payroll or income taxation. More here.) Additional fisking might be deserved here on account of the laughable defenses employed ("we're going to let the process work its way through," spins Robert Gibbs, to laughter), and because Obama spent a fair bit of campaign time knocking McCain for taking the position that the new president is now on the cusp of embracing.
Nonetheless, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that taxing health benefits to pay for health-care reform is a fantastic idea -- exactly the kind of thing that deserves a flagrant Obama flip flop. A lot of the debate over whether taxing health benefits would break Obama's $250,000 pledge suggests that the current tax structure benefits low and middle income families. (The name of the YouTube clip of Gibbs getting laughed at is "WH Won't Rule Out Tax Increase On Middle-Class.") But that isn't true: The current tax exclusion does benefit some low- and middle- class families, but most of the benefits are offered to high-income taxpayers with less need.
Here's the breakdown of benefits, by effective tax rate:
So, one's chances of being offered employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) increase fairly steadily with income. And note, in particular, the difference between those offered and those covered with a less than 10% effective tax rate. Just 35% percent of those workers receive any health tax benefits. This suggests that, even with the tax benefit, many low income families choose not to or cannot buy coverage.
(One final note: This chart shows only who is offered and receives coverage, not the value of that coverage. It would surprise exactly no one to know that, in addition to receiving coverage more frequently, wealthy taxpayers also receive coverage that is more valuable. I don't know where to find that data. All of the above numbers are drawn from the wonderful Tax Policy Center.)
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