Conservatives have seized on a recent Congressional Budget Office report showing that the Affordable Care Act will cause 2.5 million Americans to leave the workforce to argue that the Obama administration has declared a war on Americans’ work ethic. The analysis is proof, they claim, of the president’s campaign to push more Americans on the government dole, expand social programs, and ask the rest of us to finance their lives of leisure.
“The last Democratic president took concrete steps to mitigate the corrupting consequences of welfare. This one has fought tooth and nail to bring the intractable problems inherent to government aid to everybody in the country, and to transmute the safety net into a smothering, ambient cocoon,” the National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke claims. Hot Air’s Allahpundit — who Cooke cites approvingly — similarly suggests that the nation may have “reached the stage of welfare-state decadence where it’s a selling point for a new entitlement that it discourages able-bodied people from working.”
Americans, in short, are discouraged from working harder by a bloated government safety net. The claim feeds into a familiar conservative narrative — one that echoes Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen narrative of the 1980s — but it doesn’t reflect the reality of American labor.
Americans are working harder than ever while earning less. Productivity increased by nearly 8 percent from 2007 to 2012, but the amount the median American worker earned in a week fell from $770 just before the financial crisis to $768 in 2012. The median hourly earnings for American workers are now back to where they were in 2000 and wages are growing at just 2 percent per year, the slowest rate since at least 1965.
Americans are also working longer — more than our counterparts in most other developed countries. “People in the United States work 1,787 hours a year, more than the OECD average of 1,776 hours,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finds, and “around 11 percent of employees work very long hours, higher than the OECD average of 9 percent.” Between 1979 and 2000, the proportion of workers putting in 50 hours or more per week increased by six percentage points.
Still, that’s not to say that social programs don’t impact the labor force. At the center of the conservative critique is the claim that programs like the Affordable Care Act decrease an individual’s incentive to work. Why toil full time to earn employer-sponsored health benefits if you can find coverage in the new exchanges? The answer, ironically, can be found in Cooke’s own piece: Work “is the means by which standards of living are grown, human potential is reached, individual lives are focused, positive and negative instincts are channeled, resources are utilized most efficiently, and, above all, by which dignity remains intact.”
Government benefit programs — from the ACA to Medicaid to Social Security — may encourage people to work a bit less. Individuals can choose to retire early, accept a better job, change careers, start a small business, or leave the workforce to raise a family. The number of Americans whose ambition is to build a life on food stamps and government-sponsored housing is, as the macro trends above suggest, negligible.
“One way to think about how little sense this makes is to recognize that Social Security is probably the largest ‘job killer’ out there!” Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said. “Get rid of that and tons of folks would be forced to go back to work.” That, after all, is the logical endpoint to such claims.