Given the tremendous amount of focus on income inequality these days and the common knee-jerk reaction to push harmful and counterproductive wealth redistribution policies as a palliative, it is timely and important that Mark Warshawsky of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University recently published a working paper exploring the largely heretofore ignored impact to earnings inequality of employer-based healthcare coverage as a component of total compensation.
The punchline is this: healthcare coverage costs have consistently risen faster than wages for most Americans over the past four decades. Given that healthcare coverage is relatively equal across the income ranges (it is roughly the same cost to an employer to cover a family of four in the lower 30th decile of earners as that of a family of four in the highest 10th decile of earners), rising healthcare costs will harm and encroach more grievously on the employer’s ability to increase take home earnings for lower income earners. In other words, increasing healthcare costs, even if growing at the same rate for lower income workers as higher income workers, will eat up more of a percentage of total compensation and restrain actual take-home earnings for lower income workers. Furthermore, most studies, including the high- visibility and high impact to public policy book by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, have used after-tax earnings data to compare wealthy and poor, resulting in loud alarm bells on inequality. The impact? Politicians across the globe, including President Obama, declared income inequality the defining issue of our time, but based upon partially constructed data! Warshawky’s research more appropriately focuses on total compensation, which provides a more comprehensive assessment of what is going on, and in this picture is revealed a more tightly coupled growth between the income poles. This is not to say that inequality in earnings is not a problem we should address, it is more to say that policies to address it should focus on the actual cause – which is not the perceived ability of the wealthy to extract wealth at the expense of the poor, but a direct result of the pernicious impact of rising healthcare coverage costs that crowd out earnings growth for those in lower income categories.
Warshawsky uniquely pulls directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides a full assessment of the total compensation aspects of American workers. Contrast that with most studies’ data sources from the IRS and Social Security that only include cash earnings, and one develops an understanding that Warshawsky has the superior data set. In previous research using BLS data from 1999-2006, Warshawsky was able to demonstrate that if it had not been for increases in healthcare coverage costs, earnings growth between income levels would have been roughly the same. In order to understand and present the data more clearly and in layman’s terms, I have taken Warshawsky’s data and plugged in and extrapolated where I could while backing into implicit assumption numbers on baseline earnings, healthcare coverage costs, and fringe benefits for middle decile income and comparing them to top 1% incomes from 1999-2006. The patterns revealed are that while overall total compensation increased in the same percentage range over the course of seven years (34% for middle income earners and 36% for high income earners), the differences were more substantial and divergent within the earnings and healthcare coverage components of total compensation. Whereas for middle income earners wages increased only 3.5% per year, wages increased by 4.4% per year for high-income earners. This may not seem like much for any given year, but over time the differences become pronounced – over the course of seven years, the compounded gain for high income earners was 35% growth in take home earnings compared to only 27% for lower income earners. The key constraint in earnings growth for middle income earners is the fact that healthcare coverage costs rose much faster as a percentage of total compensation – rising at an annual rate of 9.9% compared to a more modest 6% for higher income levels. As Warshawsky indicates, this meant a rise in healthcare coverage as a percentage of total compensation for middle income earners from 7.2% in 1999 to 10.4% by 2006. In comparison, higher wage earners saw a modest increase of 4.0% to 4.3%.Graphs 1 and 2 visually show the impacts. While the slopes of the topline are similar between the two income groups (both rising at annual rates just over 4%), the relative mix of earnings, healthcare coverage, and fringe benefits is dissimilar; healthcare coverage costs are constraining earnings increases for middle income earners. Graphs 3 and 4 represent the percentage of total compensation aspects of the different components of total compensation, further visual evidence of the forces at play here – healthcare coverage increases for middle income earners takes up a larger percentage of total income and constrains earnings growth.
For anyone interested in a more fulsome review of the examples and scenarios I have created on top of Warshawsky’s values, I have attached the spreadsheet at health-care-costs-inequality. The detailed numbers simply provide another view in support of what Warshawsky states in the working paper, “Though rising healthcare costs eat away at wage growth for everyone, the effects will be largest for the working and middle classes because their healthcare costs are so large relative to the rest of their compensation package.”
In the rest of the paper, Warshawsky provides empirical evidence updates dating through 2014 using the same BLS approach as well as discussing supporting and conflicting studies. The conclusion is the same as the data above that cuts off in 2006, so I won’t drone on at length on it here. The policy implications are much the same as well – relief from healthcare coverage costs and decoupling health insurance from employer-based coverage, allowing American citizens to demand and receive higher wages with which they can then decide how to spend will do more for the lower and middle classes than any economically distorting wealth redistribution program.