Taxes are back in the news on the presidential campaign trail — and this time, the controversy has nothing to do with Donald Trump. While the commentariat have seized on Bill Clinton’s description of Obamacare as “crazy,” it’s important to recognize exactly what he considered so nonsensical: the fact that Obamacare increases already sizeable government-imposed penalties on work, entrepreneurship, and success. Its perverse incentives will leave more Americans stuck in a poverty trap, making Obamacare even more warped than Bill Clinton’s description of the law.
In their full context, Clinton’s comments look more damning of the law, rather than less. Before uttering the “crazy” epithet, his remarks focused on those whose income puts them right above the cutoff line to receive federal subsidies. These people are, in the former president’s words, getting “whacked” because they have succeeded in life and in business:
The current system works fine if you’re eligible for Medicaid if you’re a lower-income working person, if you’re already on Medicare, or if you get enough subsidies on a modest income that you can afford your health care. But the people who are getting killed in this deal are the small businesspeople and individuals who make just a little too much to get in on these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized, they don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies, and they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care, and they’re out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours per week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It is the craziest thing in the world.
During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney was roundly criticized when he said in an interview, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” Bill Clinton’s comments emphasized that Obamacare is not concerned about the middle class. It’s not aimed to support those who want to rise in station in life; it actually discourages them from doing so.
And whereas Romney’s 2012 impromptu “gaffe” came in a live television interview, Obamacare represents considered policy — the result of a legislative process of nearly a year and policymaking developed long before that. As I noted in a 2013 Heritage Foundation paper, the law contains numerous subsidy cliffs that create enormous inequities. In some cases, as little as an additional dollar of income could cause the loss of thousands of dollars in premium or cost-sharing subsidies paid by the federal government, or both. “Families facing these kinds of poverty traps may ask the obvious question: If I will lose so much in government benefits by earning additional income, why work?”
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has answered that question simply: In many cases, individuals will not work. A 2010 CBO report concluded that “the phaseout of the [insurance] subsidies as income rises will effectively increase marginal tax rates, which will also discourage work.” All told, the nonpartisan budget scorekeepers have concluded that the law will reduce the labor supply by the equivalent of 2 million jobs next year alone.
Obamacare only exacerbated an existing poverty trap identified by scholars on both sides of the political spectrum, including those at the left-of-center Urban Institute. As income rises above the poverty level, government-funded benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and the earned-income tax credit phase out or disappear altogether, eroding or eliminating much of the income effect from higher wages. If a single parent with two children can receive nearly $30,000 in government benefits with no earnings, but only about $10,000 in benefits with $35,000 in earnings, many parents may make the calculated decision that the comparatively modest net increase in family income does not justify work. Moreover, both the prior welfare system and Obamacare impose financial penalties on marriage, discouraging one of the best ways for families to rise out of poverty.
It’s ironic that Bill Clinton, the president who signed the largest tax increase in American history, would express such outrage at the way Obamacare raises effective marginal tax rates for the middle class. But for a party that purports to stand for the interests of the poor and working class, Obamacare will only work to perpetuate the cycle of poverty down to future generations. And that is perhaps the craziest idea of all.
This post was originally published at National Review.