Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Low-Wage Work Incentives Take a Big Hit

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Beginning this week, families can use the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces to enroll for health insurance coverage that begins Jan. 1, and in many cases receive federal assistance with their premiums and other health costs on the basis of their expected income for calendar year 2014.

Because people who work part time or are unemployed for part of the year have less annual income than people who work full time and all year, working less means qualifying for more generous subsidies. By working part time or not at all, participants in the marketplaces will also create fewer penalties for employers who don’t make affordable coverage available once those penalties go into effect in 2015. (Employers are penalized only for full-time employees and only during the months that they are on the payroll.)

These new rules will make it less rewarding to be a full-time worker and a little less burdensome to be unemployed or underemployed. In my testimony in June before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Ways and Means Committee, I quantified these new disincentives in terms of marginal tax rates — the percentage of compensation lost from paying taxes and replacing benefits associated with not working. The group I looked at was non-elderly household heads and spouses whose earnings abilities – that is, the amount that they earn when they are working full time – are in the middle of the distribution, earning roughly $800 per week when the work is full time.

Such workers (hereafter “midwage workers”) will see their marginal tax rates increase by an average of five percentage points between now and 2016, taking into account that many people will not take part in programs for which they are eligible for help. Before the Affordable Care Act, the compensation for each additional hour of work by a midwage worker was, on average, split 55 percent for the employee and 45 percent for the government (the government got its part by receiving more taxes from the employee, and paying fewer benefits, such as unemployment insurance payouts and food stamps, to the employee). Under the act, the split will be 50-50.

The unemployment rate, the employment rate and the propensity to work full time are usually measured nationwide, with every adult counting in the average regardless of whether he or she is a low-wage worker, a high-wage worker or somewhere in between. It’s worth giving attention to midwage workers because, by definition, much of the population is fairly close to the middle.

But is also informative to look at low-wage workers, because they are more likely to fall into poverty and their employment patterns may be more sensitive to incentives.

It turns out that low-wage workers will also see a reduction in their reward to work over the next couple of years, and to a greater degree than workers in the middle will. The chart below compares the five-percentage-point result for midwage workers and its components, with the tax-rate changes for low-wage workers (by which I mean workers who earn roughly $550 per week when they work full time, which is roughly twice minimum wage).

Work incentives for low-wage workers are eroded more than 10 percent of their compensation over the next couple of years, compared with 5 percent for midwage workers. Before the Affordable Care Act, the compensation for each additional hour of work by a low-wage worker was split 50 percent, on average, for employee and 50 percent for the government. Under the law, it will be 39-61.

One reason that low-wage workers will have a greater shift in their incentives is that, because they earn less, a given dollar amount is a greater percentage of their compensation than it would be for a midwage worker.

More important, low-wage workers will qualify for larger dollar subsidies in the marketplaces than midwage workers will. Working full time or spending fewer weeks unemployed will mean less, or even zero, assistance with health expenses.

In other words, some good news from the new marketplaces is that low-wage workers will be given a lot of assistance with their health expenses. But that assistance has the unfortunate consequence of higher income taxes on low-wage people: working more rather than less will not pay as well under the Affordable Care Act than it does now.

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