Obama's 'Cult of Personality' Isn't to Blame for Obamacare's Low Millennial Enrollment

Columnists on the left and right are convinced that low Obamacare enrollment in the 18- to 34-year-old range is a sign of millennials defecting on Obama. It's more complicated than that.

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Columnists on the left and right are convinced that low Obamacare enrollment in the 18- to 34-year-old range is a sign of millennials defecting on Obama. It's more complicated than that.

Dana Milbank at The Washington Post and James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal — representing the left and the right, respectively — both blamed low enrollment among millennials on Obama's failure to convince them to enroll. But that's where the agreement ends.

In his column, Milbank posited that the administration hadn't kept up the momentum of 2008 with wishy-washy young folks. The political loyalty of young people is as fleeting as youth itself, apparently. "The generation that brought Obama to power is connected online but has no loyalty to institutions — including, it turns out, the Obama White House," he wrote. "Asking them to pay money to join a health-care exchange, it seems, is too tall an order — even though the presidency they created depends on it."(Milbank then suggested that anyone who disagreed with him get off his lawn.)

Taranto rejected that argument on two grounds: a lot of millennials weren't old enough to vote in 2008, and voting for a president isn't the same as paying for insurance.

He argued that the problem is that Obama's Cult of Personality and viral advertising attempts couldn't hide the fact that Obamacare is bad. For him, Obamacare is a tangible thing, and millennials are abandoning it because it's a "shoddy and overpriced" product, and "the efforts at marketing that product are rather pitiful." He's referring to Obama's "Between Two Ferns" appearance, the celebrity moms guilt trip video, and Maine's version of Colorado's "brosurance" ads, a naked guy with a laptop in his lap who needs to "Get Covered." Taranto then cites the founder of Generation Opportunity, a group that has been dedicated to convincing young people they should opt-out of Obamacare, as more proof that the ads are unconvincing.

It's much more likely that low enrollment is a result of several more esoteric factors: higher prices for young people (especially young men), the young being more likely to be uninsured, and the young and uninsured being more likely to be uninformed about the law.

Higher prices for young people

Before Obamacare, insurers could charge older patients five times as much as younger ones. Now they can only charge three times as much. Since insurers still have to pay claims, that means that young people will be charged more and older people less. Even with subsidies and catastrophic plans available to people under 30, some individuals may decide insurance costs more than they want to pay. Even supporters of the law will admit that. As Austin Frakt at The Incidental Economist wrote last December:

There may be too many people in some states who believe or are led to believe that going uninsured is just fine.

And, you know what? Provided it’s arrived at by honest means, I respect that choice. It’s not one I’d make for myself or my family at current health insurance prices, but I don’t think I should impose my view on others. It’s neither irrational nor immoral for others to judge current prices too high.

That caveat — "arrived at by honest means" — is important. Conservative groups like Generation Opportunity and Americans for Prosperity have released misleading ads that paint people who might benefit from Obamacare as losers. It's valid to argue that young people will pay more since insurers can only charge older people three times as much. Given the law's consumer protections and subsidies, it's disingenuous to imply that Obamacare is universally "expensive."

Young more likely to be uninsured

Young "invincibles" (as they are known) are more likely to think they don't need health insurance than older demographics. And sure enough, Gallup's most recent survey of uninsured Americans shows that 26-34 year olds are more likely to be uninsured, followed by 18-25 year olds (the cut off for staying on a parent's plan). In 2009, 28.4 percent of 18-29 year olds were uninsured, compared to 20.3 percent of 30-44 year olds and 14.7 percent of 45-64 year olds. The factors that prevented some young people from getting insurance — unemployment, lower incomes especially — are still in place, even if subsidies will alleviate that for many.

Young and uninsured least likely to know about Obamacare

What Taranto ignores is that outreach, however dumb and bro-y, is important to increasing overall enrollment. A poll from the Urban Institute found that "22.6 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had not heard about the insurance marketplaces, compared to 16.4 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds, and 11.5 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds." The data was collected in December, three months after the enrollment period began, but points to an ongoing problem: more young, low income and/or uninsured individuals tend to be uninformed about the law than other demographics. Continued coverage and outreach campaigns have lowered the number of survey respondents who say they haven't heard of Obamacare, but now is the time when it makes sense for the administration to pull out all the stops.

Stunts like last week's "Between Two Ferns" appearance drove (some) traffic to Healthcare.gov. The administration's NCAA March Obamacare Madness — and this GIF bracket — is silly, but last year the president's bracket was the most popular WhiteHouse.gov post of 2013. As a method of informing people they have two weeks to enroll, harnessing pop culture is probably the best method.

The question for young people is the same question nearly everyone faces: Is buying insurance worth what I get? Few people of any age check their voting history before trying to answer that question.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.