Millennials: Hold ‘Obamacare’ hostage

Refusing to buy health insurance may be our only political hope

December 17, 2013 6:00AM ET
John Riascos, in white, with Ashante Thurston, left, and Julieth Riascos, speaks with Mario Ricart, a Sunshine Life and Health Advisors agent, about purchasing insurance at a kiosk at the Mall of Americas on Dec. 11 in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

America has a hard time figuring out how to approach millennials. On the one hand, young people are reserves of boundless potential, eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cheap education loans to develop their human capital. On the other, employers are so awash in capable young recruits that some industries have stopped paying entry-level hires at all. Politicians spend precious campaign dollars doing youth outreach, then blow off the issues that matter to us. Now the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the keystone to the president’s legacy, needs buy-in from millennials more than anyone else. The question is whether we will — or should — show up.

For any group insurance policy to work, it needs a diversified risk pool, and the ACA is no exception. The mix of enlistees has to include people who tend to be healthy, like young people, to offset those who are more likely to get sick, such as those who are older. Grouping risky and less risky people is how insurance providers are theoretically able to keep premiums low, and if the ACA can’t — or if Americans think it can’t — make insurance affordable, the program might never get off the ground. There are some safeguards designed to protect the system from immediate failure, but for the plan to work, it needs young people to buy in.

The fear among the act’s proponents is that young people won’t enroll. Earlier this month Gallup presented new poll numbers about “Obamacare” under the typically alarmist headline “Young Americans least familiar with healthcare law.” Instead, what the numbers reflect are those who have strong — but not necessarily well-informed — opinions on “Obamacare.” Republicans, who have based much of their party identity around ACA opposition rhetoric that has played infamously fast and loose with the facts, are more likely than Democrats to describe themselves as familiar with the law, by a margin of 23 percentage points. Once Gallup is done blaming millennials, they can concede that unfamiliarity with the law is understandable, “given the law’s complexity and that many of its features are still being rolled out.”

Perhaps, rather than being ignorant about the law, young people have simply learned not to trust the people pushing it to use complex mechanisms in the general interest. A Harvard Institute of Politics survey of millennial viewpoints from earlier this month found that President Barack Obama’s approval rating dropped to 41 percent among adults under the age of 30 — his lowest measure yet, down from a high of 58 in 2009. Just 14 percent of young adults surveyed said they believed the country is headed in the right direction. And slightly more than half of those 18 to 24 — only a quarter of whom were Republicans — said they would replace the president.

The possibility of total inaction on ‘Obamacare’ gives us enormous leverage. It’s time to use it do what every other interest group in American politics does: Demand everything.

Among millennials, there’s an evident lack of faith in the government. How could there not be? Candidate Obama talked a big game on unemployment, student debt, climate change, electoral reform and economic inequality. But five years after his election, the country has little to show for it. The national feeling of dread Obama promised to alleviate is alive and well. And now the government is calling for young people to pay for the care of older people.

It’s all very convenient. When some of us took to the streets with the Occupy movement, we hoped our bodies in the public square would be leverage enough to shift the national agenda, but the authorities called our bluff with police batons. Then they needed us out of the way; now they’re banking on us staying in one piece.

Apathy is a blessing

If millennials were any other demographic, the Obama administration would reach out to our interest groups and sweeten the deal until they could be sure enough of us would sign up. The AARP exists, in theory, for this very reason — to corral retirees into a useful political bloc. But millennials don’t really have interest groups, and as far as the major political parties are concerned, young Americans don’t even have interests worth weighing. We exist to be educated and marketed to. We are debt-ridden and underpaid, and the media can’t decide whether they’d rather hate, pity or fear us. Currently, our best leverage is that we’re less likely to be hospitalized than other Americans.

The question is how to use this power. I say, play to our strengths. Two million young people — or about half of Jaden Smith’s Twitter followers — who promise not to enroll in “Obamacare” could effectively hold the program hostage. Since the ACA relies heavily on public confidence, that puts us in a strong negotiating position. Even the suggestion that a large number of young people would intentionally withhold our support could doom the program.

The belief that young people are apathetic toward politics usually hurts our political bargaining power. If we’re unlikely to vote, there’s no reason to pander. But in this case, our so-called apathy is a blessing. The possibility of total inaction on the ACA gives us enormous leverage. It’s time to use it do what every other interest group in American politics does: Demand everything.

Demand that the Department of Labor crack down on illegal internships and other forms of wage theft. Demand that the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act get a fair vote on the Senate floor. Demand that Congress cap tuition-increase rates at universities receiving Pell Grant money. Demand a jobs program, legal marijuana, a guaranteed minimum income. Hell, demand a trillion dollars; it worked out great for the banks. Don’t sign up for “Obamacare” until they meet these demands and then some.

The only way to get our way in American politics is threaten to burn the whole house down. And when older adults inevitably chide us for taking irresponsible and selfish risks with the country’s future, we can always remind them who taught us how.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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