‘Obamacare’ work flexibility creates GOP identity crisis

What ever happened to conservative support for family, freedom and owning a business?

February 18, 2014 11:30AM ET
A man in his antique shop. With the ACA, would-be “olderpreneurs” no longer have to choose between health insurance and pursuing their version of the American dream.
Sarah Morgan/Getty Images

You would expect Republicans to show at least a sliver of enthusiasm for a law that makes it easier for people to start businesses or care for young children. Those are, after all, things they have supported in the past. But all bets are off when that law is the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Take entrepreneurship, such a core value for the GOP that it sometimes appears to lose sight of plain old workers (to wit, the headline on a recent story by conservative writer Byron York in The Washington Examiner, “The House GOP’s incredible, amazing discovery: Most Americans aren’t entrepreneurs”).

Contrary to the stereotype of the cool young innovator, research shows that many of those who start businesses are what are sometimes called olderpreneurs. One study of 652 technology executives found that “twice as many U.S.-born tech entrepreneurs start ventures in their 50s as do those in their early 20s.” Other research suggests that up to 86 percent of people ages 55 to 64 have conditions that once would have made it difficult or impossible for them to buy insurance on the individual market.

Enter the ACA, which forbids such exclusions, and would-be olderpreneurs no longer have to choose between health insurance and pursuing their version of the American dream. In fact, this is now true of anyone of any age and health status and lays the groundwork for broad innovation and job creation in the years ahead. But instead of celebrating this and other liberating aspects of the ACA, conservative lawmakers and pundits are expressing less than brotherly dismay about the premium subsidies that will help lower-income people buy health insurance.

The wave was set off after the Feb. 4 release of a Congressional Budget Office report (PDF) that projected a smaller future labor force as a result of the ACA and its subsidies.

“You tell me ONE person who was/is successful by not working ... or you tell me ONE instance when not working, or reduced working, has led to success or increased the chances of success. If you really want to oppress people, take away their self-respect that comes with full time work,” Fox News host Greta Van Susteren wrote on her Facebook page. And that was mild compared with her colleague Bill O’Reilly’s complaint that the ACA is “creating a class of layabouts.” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., made the same case on “Fox News Sunday” in a less inflammatory way, saying, “I think any law you pass that discourages people from working can't be a good idea. Why would we want to do that? … The best face you can put on that is that it means people that don’t want to work don’t have to work.”

You might fairly conclude from all of this that the GOP and its cable chorus support locking people into whatever job or multiple jobs they hold and oppose freeing them to make decisions about their work and personal lives. In other words, the opposite of the views they held before President Barack Obama took office and the ACA became law.

These reversals have taken center stage since the release of the nonpartisan CBO report, which estimated that the labor force will be smaller by the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs in 2025 as people voluntarily leave jobs or work fewer hours. “To be clear, total employment and hours worked will increase over the coming decade but by less than they would have in the absence of the ACA,” CBO Director Doug Elmendorf wrote in a Feb. 10 follow-up blog post addressing the political firestorm ignited by the report.

It is not right or realistic to expect all individuals to make as much money as possible in order to pay as much as possible in taxes and rely as little as possible on the government.

There is certainly plenty of fodder for liberal anxiety as the ACA lurches forward, from the latest delay (medium-size companies now have until 2016 to provide health insurance or pay a penalty) to the measured CBO analysis that projects a slower-growing workforce, lower tax revenues and higher deficits as a result of the law to the taxpayer-financed subsidies that will make it possible for some people not to work. But Elmendorf also wrote that the trade-offs are “intrinsic in any effort to significantly increase health insurance coverage or to provide other types of benefits that are aimed at low-income people.” In other words, it’s a judgment call as to whether they are good or bad for the country.

The conservative Texas-based blogger Melissa Clouthier tweeted that it’s “immoral” to rely on taxpayer subsidies if you are able to work. Yet, looking at the bigger picture, people make choices all the time that cause them to work more or fewer hours and earn more or less money — from parents who want to be home with their kids to idealists who would rather be social workers than rack up a fortune on Wall Street. It is not right (or realistic) to expect all individuals to make as much money as possible in order to pay as much as possible in taxes and rely as little as possible on the government.

The political argument played out on my Twitter account after I noted that in interpreting the CBO report, “some people see a bunch of slackers leaving the workforce and their salaries so they can get free health insurance,” while “others see people who are older, disabled or young parents leaving workforce, grateful they can still get insurance.”

Liz Steinkamp of Illinois responded that whatever their reasons, the upshot of people’s quitting or cutting back their hours will be that “millions must work harder so these others can work less. Frankly, I'm resentful.” But is that the case when there are three people for every job opening? Tara Radosevich of Minnesota put it this way in another tweet, “I was in an unpleasant job just for healthcare. Now we can afford it and I can be a mom. They’ll rehire. Win-win.”

Family is one of many factors at play as people decide whether and how much to work. The Washington Post profiled two people who were able to quit their jobs as a result of the ACA. One, in her mid-50s, is now caring for her granddaughter so her single daughter can work. The other is working with a nephew who survived cancer to start a social-media and video-gaming website for young people with the disease. Both these people are not paying the level of taxes they paid before, and they receive subsidies to help cover their insurance costs. But who can say those decisions are wrong? And who can predict the future of that new website? Maybe it will take off and create jobs for others.

That said, nobody wants to see people quitting work and sitting idle simply because it would allow them to qualify for high monthly subsidies. If there are ways to tweak the law to discourage the moocher mentality, let’s hear about them. But there’s no need for anyone to get misanthropic about it or for Republicans to throw their talk of family and freedom under the bus. 

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

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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