Guest column: RedBlueAmerica: Is Obamacare undermining the American work ethic?

Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk

A new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says the Affordable Care Act will reduce the effective size of the U.S. workforce by 2.5 million over the next 10 years.

The White House responded that the law is giving Americans more choices by removing the link between work and health insurance. But critics of Obamacare seized on the report as more evidence the president’s health-care reform law is doing more harm than good.

Is the Affordable Care Act hurting the work ethic? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.


There’s a lot to be said for work, in and of itself. A person who collects $10,000 in benefits and sits on the couch all day probably won’t find life quite as satisfying as the person who earns the same $10,000. Many of us find that our work gives us purpose and meaning, and that’s pretty great.

Before it can do any of that, though, work must give us a living. Increasingly, it fails to do so.

We have noted here before, and we shall note again: For 40 years, the productivity of middle-class workers has increased greatly even as their wages have stagnated — it often takes two full-time working parents to achieve the earning power that a single parent did a generation ago.

Problems for the middle class were exacerbated by the Great Recession, in which many workers lost lucrative jobs and replaced them with poorer-paying work that, often, doesn’t quite pay all the bills. Unless you’re rich, it’s not been a fun generation to be an American worker.

The irony in all this: Republicans have spent the Obama administration complaining about every small act that might put a dent in the earnings of America’s richest citizens. Those folks need to keep as much of their money as possible, the argument goes, or they’ll lose the incentive to work and create and produce new goods for all of us to buy and enjoy.

Apparently, incentives apply only to the rich. For the rest of us, conservatives apparently believe we should be grateful for what we have — witness recent arguments that iPads are so fun that income inequality shouldn’t matter — and that toil itself should be its own reward.

What’s this have to do with Obamacare? Conservatives worry that government is severing the link between work and reward. The private sector has done a fine job of that on its own. At least under Democrats, there’s still a reward.


Watching defenders of President Obama’s foundering health-care reforms try to explain why a smaller workforce is a benefit of the law has been a wonder to behold.

It’s great, they say, that health insurance is no longer attached to employment. As White House mouthpiece Jay Carney put it, “Americans would no longer be trapped in a job just to provide coverage for their families, and would have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

That’s certainly one way of looking at it. But what the Congressional Budget Office report says actually underscores what conservative critics of the law have been warning about all along: Obamacare discourages productive work.

A spate of new economic research backs the conservative argument. As the federal government expands eligibility for Medicaid, people will have fewer incentives to work.

But that’s not all. The law’s tax increases and so-called “employer mandate,” which the Obama administration just decided to delay for yet another year, discourages employers from hiring people, because health care is terribly expensive — made more so by the new law’s requirements to cover just about everything under the sun.

More to the point, the law’s “individual mandate,” which penalizes people for not purchasing insurance, discourages people from working too much. Given a choice between working and working less, or working and not working at all, the law will nudge people away from work toward not working.

Bear in mind, the U.S. labor participation rate is already at historic lows. The sluggish economy has driven millions of otherwise productive people from the workforce. As Mercatus Center researcher Charles Blahous noted at the Manhattan Institute’s e21 blog, “With millions of baby boomers heading into retirement and unsustainable deficits on the horizon, that is a huge self-inflicted problem.”

How, then, is Obamacare progress? What kind of “dreams” does it inspire?

The kind of dreams that imagine millions of Americans living — subsisting, really — on government largesse, at the expense of an ever-dwindling class of productive citizens. The dream is a nightmare of dependency.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected])  is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: They wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune.