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)

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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