Bad tax or no tax? The ACA excise tax debate, continued
Friend and former colleague Jared Bernstein made a defense of the ACA excise tax on expensive employer-provided health insurance plans a couple of days ago. It’s about as good a defense as there is of the excise tax, but at EPI we’re still largely unconvinced. He provides some arguments on the substance of the tax (which I’ll briefly touch on below), but mostly leans on a political argument, that this is a tax that actually exists, and given the anti-tax zealotry of congressional Republicans, we should be very leery of giving away any revenue that is currently on the books.
First, some economics, and then on to some politics.
Jared and I are roughly on the same page regarding the wage/health care trade off issue. As the excise tax is imposed on plan costs above a certain threshold, this will encourage people to shift into plans with lower upfront premiums. But these lower upfront premiums mean that more health costs are shifted onto households in the form of higher co-pays, deductibles, and co-insurance. The good news of lower premiums, however, is that this frees up money for employers to give more compensation to workers in the form of cash wages rather than health premiums. Elise Gould and I have argued in the past that this wage boost stemming from less-generous health plans is likely to be a long time coming, particularly if labor markets remain slack. Jared agrees. He argues this trade off likely will happen in the longer run. I agree (though I’m not 100 percent sure, and am troubled by the lack of robust empirical support in the research literature on this). My beef has mostly been with people who simply state that the excise tax will lead to a “raise” for American workers. That’s bunk. It will change the composition, not the level, of employee compensation. And it will increase total taxes on this compensation, hence cutting their take-home pay.
Hiring lags as economy slows over the summer
Today’s release of the September Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data corroborates the story we saw in August and September’s jobs reports, as hiring slowed and the economy added a paltry number of jobs (note that the JOLTS data comes with a one-month lag relative to monthly jobs numbers, so the much-improved October jobs report data is not reflected in today’s release). Although the number of job openings increased to 5.5 million in September, this was after a large decrease to from 5.7 to 5.4 million in August. But the main data point we should focus on is the hires rate, which actually fell in September from 3.6 percent to 3.5 percent, the lowest it has been in a year.
In September, there were 1.4 active job seekers for every job opening. Although this decline is a welcome improvement in the JOLTS ratio, it is important to remember that there are still almost 8 million unemployed workers and over 3.5 million estimated “missing workers” who have left the labor force altogether because job opportunities have been so weak.
In fact, there is still a significant gap between the number of people looking for jobs and the number of job openings. The figure below shows the levels of unemployed workers and job openings. You can see the labor market improve over the last five years, as the number of unemployed workers falls and job openings rise. In a stronger economy (like the one shown in the initial year of data), these levels would be much closer together.
The National Association of Home Builders’ evidence supports DOL’s proposed rule on overtime
The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), both in congressional testimony and in the official comments it submitted to the Department of Labor, makes a strong case for the Obama administration’s proposed rule on the overtime rights of salaried workers. Yes, you read that right: NAHB makes an ironclad case that businesses will have little difficulty adjusting to the proposed rule change.
Naturally, NAHB, which claims to represent 140,000 members involved in “home building, remodeling, multifamily construction, property management, subcontracting, design, housing finance, building product manufacturing and other aspects of residential and light commercial construction,” testified before Congress that the DOL proposal would be the end of Western Civilization. But the data they presented tell a different story.
NAHB’s own survey of its members found that two-thirds would make no changes in their policies or operations. Many, of course, already pay their supervisors more than $50,440 a year and would be unaffected. Of the one-third that would make adjustments, most would do exactly what the rule contemplates: they would reduce the amount of overtime their supervisors work. Twice as many firms would raise the salary of their supervisors above the $50,440 threshold as would reduce their salary. And only 13 percent of the firms that said they would make a change would switch their supervisors from salary to hourly wage. In other words, just 4 percent of home builders would convert their salaried supervisors to hourly pay.
It is noteworthy that of the four top responses among the home builders who say they will make changes, two are undeniably positive—raising salaries and reducing overtime hours worked. Apparently, Ed Brady, the NAHB official who testified in the Small Business committee, is one of the few home builders in America who would contemplate outsourcing the role of construction supervisor in order to avoid paying overtime. Any contractor who employed that supervisor would have to deal with the same issues as Mr. Brady, and would charge for the costs they entail, plus a profit— so perhaps it’s not surprising that Mr. Brady is alone in planning to outsource his supervisors.
Clearly, the NAHB’s own evidence shows that DOL’s proposed changes in the overtime rules will have small, mostly positive effects on the homebuilding industry and its employees.
Looking beyond the topline employment number: Public-sector jobs remain depressed
An increase of 271,000 in payroll employment is a promising sign. One month is surely not predictive of the future, but if this continues, it is good news for the economy and the people in it. While the topline employment number for October is quite encouraging, other indicators continue to paint a picture of a plateaued economy, particularly the fact that there has been no growth in prime-age employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) this year.
The share of the 25–54 year old population actually employed is arguably one of the best measures of economic health. At 77.2 percent, it remains depressed— lower than the worst of the prior two recessions before the Great Recession. The effects of such low prime-age EPOPs may be far-reaching, affecting not only the incomes but also the health of the population.
Public-sector employment also remains weak, and depressed government spending continues to be the leading cause of the sluggish pace of recovery in recent years. One thing that has been historically unique about this recovery is the unprecedented loss of and lack of recovery of public-sector jobs. The figure below compares public-sector employment in this recovery to the three prior recoveries. Recessions are marked by the lines to the left of the zero point on the x-axis, while recoveries are to the right. This graph clearly shows that the public sector has seen massive job loss in the current recovery. This is a direct result of austerity policy and a huge drag that has not weighed on earlier recoveries.
Where can we find hope for our schools?
Bringing It Back Home, a report issued by the Economic Policy Institute at the end of October, provides a distinct service in reminding Americans that they can learn more about how to improve their schools by looking at successful American states than they can by heading overseas to pry lessons out of foreigners.
The authors, Stanford’s Martin Carnoy, EPI’s Emma Garcia, and Tatiana Khavenson at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, have produced an impressive piece of scholarship. Their work makes a genuine new contribution to the discussion about how to improve American schools.
In considering this study, several points need to be born in mind.
First, the United States has very real problems in its schools. We cannot be Pollyannas about where we are. Average student performance is not where we would like it to be, and the average conceals terrible gaps between students doing well and those bringing up in the rear.
Historically, we have done a reasonably good job with the traditional students our schools were designed to serve. But now we face a new challenge: a student population in which the majority of students are, for the first time in our history, both low-income and children of color.
What to watch on Jobs Day: Job growth has only been fast enough to keep up with population growth
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the October numbers on the state of the labor market. As usual, I will be looking closely at nominal wage growth. Wage growth—a key indicator of labor market slack—remains far below target levels. It’s important to continue to encourage the Federal Reserve to keep their foot off the brakes until wage growth picks up. But, right now, I want to talk about the pace of job growth.
Previously, I’ve written about how payroll employment has been slower in 2015 compared with 2014. Average monthly job gains were 260,000 in 2014. This year so far job growth has averaged only 198,000— and moreover, job growth the last three months was noticeably slower than the previous three months. In the third quarter, average job gains were 167,000, compared with an average of 231,000 in the second quarter.
So, job growth has slowed, but what do these numbers really mean? Recent months are clearly weaker, slower, more sluggish than previous months, but are we still on the right track? At this recent slower rate of growth, a full jobs recovery is still almost two and a half years away.
Brookings paper on the Postal Service gets the facts wrong
Elaine Kamarck’s essay, “Delaying the Inevitable: Political Stalemate and the U.S. Postal Service,” grossly misstates the facts about the central cause of the Postal Service’s financial crisis, which is the statutory requirement to pre‐fund retiree health benefits. Current law, enacted in 2006, requires the Postal Service to pre‐fund these benefits over a 10‐year period at a cost of $5.5 billion per year. Kamarck writes (citing a Report by the Postal Regulatory Commission1) that retiree health benefits caused “$22,417 million in expenses out of a total net loss of $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2014.” Wrong. The $22.4 billion figure Kamarck cites represents the liability the Postal Service accrued over a 10‐year period due to its inability to make all the pre‐funding payments mandated by the 2006 law.
Kamarck misses what the Postal Regulatory Commission Report clearly shows: The $5.7 billion pre‐funding expense for 2014 exceeded the Postal Service’s $5.5 billion net loss for the year. For 2014 operations, the Postal Service had a positive net income of nearly $1.4 billion. (The Postal Service also had a positive net income based on operations in 2013 and in the first half of fiscal year 2015.)
Unfortunately, that’s not all she got wrong. For example, Kamarck pegs her analysis to the “dramatic decline in the volume of single piece first class mail,” citing a study by the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG).2 But in doing so, she omits reference to the several important qualifiers in that OIG study. First, as the OIG study states, “The total volume decline figure hides significant differences in mail volume by geographical area. Differences in mail use such as these have important policy implications for the nation and for the Postal Service.”3 In some parts of the country, there has been little or no decline in the use of First Class Mail;4 and even in areas of high volume loss, significant volumes of First Class Mail remain.5
Wages for top earners soared in 2014: Fly top 0.1 percent, fly
After dipping slightly in 2013, annual earnings of the top 1.0 percent of wages earners grew 4.9 percent in 2014, and the top 0.1 percent’s earnings grew 8.9 percent, according to our analysis of the latest Social Security Administration wage data. This analysis provides the first look at the likely trend of the household incomes of the top 1.0 percent. The top 1.0 percent’s earnings have nearly returned to their previous high point, attained in 2007. In fact, the earnings of workers between the 99th and 99.9th percentiles have reached their highest level of all time—it’s only the earnings of the top 0.1 percent that are still below 2007 levels. The top 5.0 percent has also reached its highest level of earnings ever.
Surprisingly, wages of the top 1.0 percent declined in 2013, while those of the bottom 99.0 percent grew. We hypothesized that this decline in top earnings might reflect income shifting, as a new, higher top bracket—39.6 percent—and an additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax on high earners provided incentives to shift compensation into 2012 (when top 1.0 percent wages grew 6.1 percent). It looks like we were right. The strong growth of earnings at the top in 2014 suggests that the highest earners have found their mojo once again. In the analysis below we review these recent trends, as well as trends during the Great Recession and over the longer-term.
Wage growth from 2013 to 2014
The table below shows that annual earnings for the bottom 90 percent of earners rose 1.4 percent in 2014, to $33,297—just $20 above their 2007 level. Given that hourly wages were stagnant or falling throughout the wage scale in 2014, this growth in annual wages must have been due to an increase in hours worked per worker. Workers between the 90th and 95th percentiles of wages (averaging about $110,000 in 2014) saw wage growth comparable to that of the bottom 90 percent (1.3 percent) and the earnings of workers between the 95th and 99th percentile grew 1.9 percent. Among the 1.0 percent, earnings for the top 0.1 percent grew the strongest (8.9 percent), while those just beneath them—the next 0.9 percent—had a slower 2.6 percent earnings growth.
Forced binding arbitration robs workers and consumers of basic rights
The New York Times has published two parts of a three-part series about the epidemic of arbitration clauses that have cropped up in millions of transactions between corporations and their customers and employees. The clauses are routinely included in employment contracts, cell-phone contracts, consumer product purchase agreements, cable subscriptions, rental agreements, and a multitude of financial transactions, as a way to prevent injured parties from having their day in court. Giving up the constitutionally protected right to sue in state or federal court is a big deal and is often the result of ignorance and deceit: millions of people have no idea the clauses are there in the fine print of contract provisions written in legalese that few individuals ever read or comprehend. They don’t find out they’ve lost their rights until they need them.
Individuals give up not just their right to go to court but all protections regarding the venue of any hearing their claim will receive (for example, the agreement might require arbitration in a city a thousand miles away). They might give up certain remedies and the right to appeal even if the arbitrator gets the law completely wrong, and give up the essential right to join with other victims to file a class action, especially important when each claim is small and no single individual could rationally pay to hire a lawyer and bring a lawsuit for such a small sum.
Disappointing NAEP scores and the questions they raise
This week we learned that, for the first time in its 20 year history, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) declined or were stagnant in both fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading. Naturally, this is prompting concern and questions. Are current education policies on the right course? Is the Common Core not working? Do these scores indicate “test fatigue” because kids are taking too many tests?
These questions cannot be answered by two years of data, even relatively reliable data like NAEP scores. We should be looking at longer-term trends—this decline may be a blip, even if it was across-the-board. We also need to disaggregate the data and look at not just how the average student performed, http://www.canadianpharmacy365.net/. Perhaps most important, we should always consider these data in a broader context.
Looking at this year’s scores as part of a longer term trend, we see that the past decade (post-No Child Left Behind) delivered much smaller gains than the years prior. Fourth graders gained substantially more in math between 1992 and 2003 (15 points) than in the twelve years since (nine points between 2003 and this year’s 2015 results). In eighth grade, the difference is even more striking—a gain of 15 points from 1992–2003, versus just four since. And while overall gains in reading have been much smaller, the ratio is similar—fourth graders gained five points from 1992–2003, but just one point in the past twelve years.
Disney H-1B Scandal in Spotlight Again: Meet The American Workers Whose Jobs and Careers Were Destroyed by the H-1B Program
Two courageous Disney workers were interviewed yesterday on a local television news program in Sarasota, Florida. In the interview, they describe what it was like to train their foreign replacements: “Like when a guillotine falls down on you.” It’s hard to overestimate how many Americans’ livelihoods have been damaged by the H-1B visa guestworker program, which allows employers to hire about 130,000 new college-educated foreign workers every year for up to six years at a time.
Does the budget deal include benefit cuts?
Many of us reacted to the tentative budget deal with surprised relief. Assuming the agreement holds, the White House was able to lift the debt ceiling and end the sequester without losing limbs in the process, as my colleague Ross Eisenbrey aptly put it. This time the administration resisted the urge to throw red meat to the other side’s lions.
Inevitably, the deal will intensify dissent on the right. But there is also a surprisingly heated debate about the seemingly benign Social Security provisions among advocates, some of whom view any cost savings as benefit cuts and say an off-budget program with a dedicated funding stream should not be discussed in budget negotiations (though they don’t object to including transfers to the disability program in this budget deal). In particular, a vocal minority opposes a provision that would no longer allow people to take advantage of the “file and suspend” strategy, whereby someone eligible for both retirement and spousal benefits delays take-up of the former to receive a larger benefit at age 70, while receiving the latter in the interim (most people without clever financial advisers simply receive the higher of the two benefits whenever they apply).
Eliminating “aggressive Social Security-claiming strategies, which allow upper-income beneficiaries to manipulate the timing of collection of Social Security benefits in order to maximize delayed retirement credits” was something the president included in his fiscal-year 2015 budget, not something the administration reluctantly agreed to. And most advocates, http://www.canadianpharmacy365.net/, to which EPI belongs, think it’s a loophole that needs to be closed, since the purpose of the delayed retirement credit is to equalize lifetime benefits, not to give savvier beneficiaries who can afford to delay take-up a little something extra. The dissidents counter that a benefit cut by any other name is still a benefit cut, and say it’s a strategy that can help divorced women, who can be particularly vulnerable in retirement.
The dissidents make a strong case with feminist appeal. But it’s still double dipping even if a few people who take advantage actually need a larger benefit. In the end, it all seems a distraction from the benefits of the agreement, which include averting large benefit cuts to disabled beneficiaries.
The Republican Study Committee wants to ratchet austerity up well past the sequester
A bit over four years ago, the U.S. economy threatened to breach the legislated (and totally arbitrary) national debt ceiling. There was no economic sign (high interest rates, for example) that argued that public debt was too high, and there were many economic signs that such debt was actually too low. Yet because of a quirk in American economic policy, Congress must periodically act to raise the nominal value of the debt allowed to be issue by the federal government. This is normally a pro forma vote, at least after members of Congress are allowed to rail against what they see as the fiscal policy failings of the current president.
But in August 2011, in an unprecedented breach of Congressional norms, Republicans in Congress instead used the looming breach of the debt ceiling to demand spending cuts. Besides breaching legislative norms, the resulting cuts were also economically disastrous. The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and the resulting spending austerity (often short-handed not quite accurately as “the sequester”) fully explains why the U.S. economy has yet to reach a full recovery from the Great Recession, even more than six years after the recession officially ended. If we had instead simply followed the average path of federal spending that characterized all previous post-World War II recessions, the U.S. economy would be at full employment by now, and the Fed would have certainly begun raising interest rates a long time ago.
The fiscal drag resulting from the sequester relented a little in the past two years, as the result of a compromise reached between the House and Senate budget committees. But this compromise only rolled back sequester cuts for two years. For fiscal year 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that not extending this compromise and instead returning to 2011 BCA spending targets could cost as many as 800,000 jobs as these cuts drag on aggregate demand.
Pennsylvania’s upcoming budget decision highlights the choice facing states across the country
Over the past few years, many states have faced critical choices about whether to raise state revenues, hold firm to existing—potentially inadequate—tax structures, or cut taxes, sometimes on top of cuts made in earlier years. Today, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are again considering these same choices, but with a somewhat unique opportunity to change course from the path they took earlier in the recovery. Two weeks ago, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released a plan to raise revenue which, he stressed in a press conference, will begin to address the state’s structural budget deficit and reverse deep cuts to education spending that occurred in 2010-11.
As lawmakers throughout the country consider plans for the coming fiscal year, it is instructive to compare the fiscal and economic performance of Pennsylvania in recent years with other states that made either similar or starkly different fiscal choices. For example, California and Minnesota raised taxes to improve their fiscal health and to reinvest in education, while Kansas and Wisconsin followed the same path as Pennsylvania—reducing taxes by varying degrees and dramatically cutting education spending.
The results of this policy experiment can be summarized as follows:
- The two states that raised revenues have enjoyed percent job growth since 2010-11 that is one-and-a-half to three times larger than the three states that cut taxes.
- The states that increased taxes have seen revenue growth—both as a result of the tax changes and as a result of stronger recoveries—of 8 percent and 15 percent. Kansas has seen its revenues fall 5 percent and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have seen revenue growth of 5 percent and 7 percent, meager enough to make fiscal stability and reinvestment in vital programs difficult.
- State school funding per pupil has increased 15-21 percent in Minnesota and California while plunging 9-14 percent in the three tax-cut states. That means the ratio of funding per pupil in Minnesota and California compared to any of the other three states has shifted 26-41 percent in just four years.
More of the same: JOLTS is continued evidence of a slow moving economy
Today’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report shows there has been little change in the labor market for America’s workers. The rate of job openings actually decreased in August to 5.4 million. At the same time, the hires rate held steady while the quits rate remains depressed. Coupled with jobs reports so far this year, today’s report provides more evidence of a slow moving economy, with meager wage growth and employment growth that’s just keeping up with the growth in the working age population.
There is still a significant gap between the number of people looking for jobs and the number of job openings. The figure below shows the levels of unemployed workers and job openings. You can see the labor market improve over the last five years, as the number of unemployed workers falls and job openings rise. In a stronger economy (like the one shown in the initial year of data), these levels would be much closer together. Today, there are still 1.5 active job seekers for every job opening. Furthermore, on top of the 8+ million unemployed workers warming the bench, there are still four million workers sitting in the stands with little hope to even get in the game.
Job openings levels and unemployment levels, 2000-2015
|Month||Job Openings level||Unemployment level|
Note: Shaded areas denote recessions.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and Current Population Survey
Urban Outfitters gets into the holiday spirit by asking its employees to work for free
An internal memo to the staff of hipster retailer Urban Outfitters, which was leaked to Gawker, gives us a window into how the retailer’s Philadelphia-based parent company, URBN, plans to deal with the upcoming holiday rush. Their not-so-innovative idea: ask employees to work for free.
In a “call for volunteers,” URBN informs the staff that “October will be the busiest month yet for the [fulfillment] center, and we need additional helping hands to ensure the timely shipment of orders.” It goes on to explain to its employees that “as a volunteer, you will work side by side with your [fulfillment center] colleagues to help pick, pack and ship orders for our wholesale and direct customers.”
In short, URBN, whose executive staff took home a combined $12.2 million in compensation last year, is asking its employees to take time out of their weekends to commute to rural Pennsylvania and work in a warehouse—for free.
Unsurprisingly, this request is most likely illegal. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), it is unlawful for a for-profit employer “to suffer or permit” someone to work without compensation—consequently, asking an employee who is not “exempt” to “volunteer” for a for-profit enterprise, whether they are salaried or hourly, is explicitly prohibited by the FLSA.
Failure to stem dollar appreciation has put manufacturing recovery in reverse
This week, President Obama announced the completion of negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP, which is likely to drive down middle-class wages and increase offshoring and job loss, has been widely criticized by leading members of Congress from both parties. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Saunders, and other presidential candidates have announced their opposition to the deal.
Meanwhile, U.S. jobs and the recovery are threatened by a growing trade deficit in manufactured products, which is on pace to reach $633.9 billion in 2015, as shown in Figure A, below. This deficit exceeds the previous peak of $558.5 billion in 2006 (not shown) by more than $75 billion. The increase in the manufacturing trade deficit in 2015 alone will amount to 0.5 percent of projected GDP, and will likely reduced projected growth by even more as manufacturing wages and profits are reduced.
U.S. manufacturing trade deficit, 2007–2015* (billions of dollars)
|Year||U.S. manufacturing trade deficit (billions of dollars)|
* Estimated, based on year-to-date trade data through August 2015
Source: Author's analysis of U.S. International Trade Commission Trade DataWeb
The growth of the manufacturing trade deficit is starting to have an impact on manufacturing employment, which has lost 27,300 jobs since July 2015, as shown in Figure B, below. Growing exports support U.S. jobs, but increases in imports cost jobs, so even if overall exports are growing, trade deficits hurt U.S. employment—especially in manufacturing, because most traded goods are manufactured products. Although the United States had regained more than 800,000 manufacturing jobs since 2010, the low point of the manufacturing collapse after the great recession, overall manufacturing employment is still 1.4 million jobs lower than it was in December 2007.
ACA excise tax on expensive health plans is an unambiguous pay cut
The Affordable Care Act is making the U.S. health system much more efficient and fair. One provision of it, however, remains controversial, even among those strongly supportive of the overall law. This is the 40 percent excise tax on the marginal cost of expensive health plans, sometimes very misleadingly referred to as the “Cadillac Tax.” Defenders of this tax, and even many reporters, have claimed recently that the tax will “give Americans a raise” or will “raise incomes.” These claims are wrong. Instead, the excise tax— even in the best case—is an unambiguous cut in after-tax pay for workers.
Beginning in 2018, the tax will be levied on the cost of single plans in excess of $10,200 a year, and non-single plans in excess of $27,500. The point of the tax is to nudge workers into taking thinner health plans—those with lower premiums that stay under the threshold for the tax. But choosing plans with lower premiums will generally lead to higher out-of-pocket costs – higher deductibles, co-pays and/or other forms of cost sharing. This increased cost-sharing is the point of the tax, not a byproduct. By boosting the marginal cost of each new episode of obtaining health care, the theory is that health consumers will shop more wisely and cut back on unnecessary care. We have strong reservations about leaning on this dynamic as effective cost containment, but for now I’ll focus on a side claim made by defenders: that a happy consequence of accepting plans with lower premium costs is that workers will see higher wages.
The theory for this is that if employers cut back on contributions to health insurance premiums as workers choose thinner plans, more money will become available to boost non-health care compensation—wages or other fringe benefits. This presumed increase in wages actually accounts for a significant share of estimated revenue that will be raised by the tax. (I should note that if the compensating wage boost stemming from lower employer premium payments does not happen, this does not necessarily mean that the tax won’t raise money. Lower premium costs and unchanged wages paid by employers imply a rise in business income or profitability, and this higher profitability should mean higher tax payments by employers.)
Human resources group shoots at Obama overtime rule but misses
This will be the first in a series of blog posts examining some of the comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in response to its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on overtime pay for salaried employees. Approximately 300,000 comments have been acknowledged by DOL; I want to call attention to a few of the most salient comments, both pro and con.
I’ll start with the Human Resources Policy Association (HRPA), which claims to represent “the most senior human resource executives in more than 360 of the largest companies in the United States.” HRPA’s comment addresses both what DOL actually proposed as well as ideas it was merely considering. Three of HRPA’s criticisms are worth considering, though each is deeply flawed:
- The proposed salary level is too high because it “would effectively nullify the statutory exemption for a significant number of employees Congress meant to exempt.”
- The proposed rule would limit “workplace flexibility.”
- The rule should not index the salary level test.
The salary level proposed by DOL is modest and meets the congressional intent
HRPA’s argument that the salary level is too high begins with a misstatement of the role of the salary level test. It very clearly is not intended to set a “level at which the employees below it clearly would not meet any [executive, administrative, or professional (EAP)] duties test.” The salary level test would be redundant if the employees covered by it clearly would not meet any EAP duties test. In fact, DOL has long expressed the exact opposite intent. In the words of DOL’s 1949 report and recommendations, “the salary level must be high enough to include only those persons about whose exemption there is normally no question” (Weiss, 23).
Tax on expensive health insurance plans could cut care along with costs
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank.
The Affordable Care Act took enormous strides toward providing access to health-care coverage to the tens of millions of uninsured Americans and reining in the skyrocketing costs of health care that heavily pressured households and public budgets, addressing what we consider the most glaring shortcomings of the U.S. health system. When it comes to cost control, however, the policy virtue of one provision of the ACA–the excise tax on high-cost employer-sponsored health insurance plans, frequently called the Cadillac tax–is often overstated.
This provision levies a 40% tax on the cost of insurance plans that exceed $10,200 for individuals in 2018 ($27,500 for non-single plans). The policy goal of this tax is to nudge workers into opting for plans that charge lower premiums. Lower premiums in turn imply higher co-pays, deductibles, and cost-sharing. To be clear, these higher out-of-pocket costs are the point of the tax, not a byproduct. The theory is that as each new episode of obtaining care becomes more expensive households will cut back on health spending and this will help contain costs.
We think this is roughly true. Evidence shows that making health care more expensive does induce people to consume less of it. But the same evidence shows that people do not cut back only on care that is ineffective or somehow luxurious; instead, they cut back across the board. Expecting sick Americans to decide on the fly in an opaque and uncompetitive marketplace what health care is cost-effective–and what is not–is an unrealistic and unfair approach to containing costs.
While overall costs may be pushed down by the excise tax, this is a good outcome only if one believes that the health care squeezed out is merely the ineffective kind. But a lot of welfare-improving care may also be a casualty, and for some patients, cutting back on medically indicated care because of the increased cost-sharing could increase their overall spending. For example: some patients who cut back on low-cost pills to contain cholesterol end up in emergency rooms.
Disappointing Jobs Numbers and Not Enough Teachers
Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment situation report showed the economy added a disappointing 142,000 jobs in September, bringing average monthly job creation to 198,000 in 2015—a rate slower than 2014. Hope for upward revisions to the low August numbers were dashed as well. In fact, July and August’s numbers were revised downward by a combined 59,000 fewer jobs. Digging into the report, we see that the civilian labor force participation rate declined, the employment-to-population ratio for prime age workers has continued to stagnate, (sitting at 77.2 percent—where it was when the year started), and wage growth is stuck at 2.2 percent. Taken together, these are signs of a labor market that retains a fair amount of slack and evidence that the Federal Reserve was right not to raise interest rates in September and indeed should not raise them in 2015.
With the September data in hand, we can look at the number of teachers who are starting work or going back to school this year. The number of teachers and education staff fell dramatically during the recession, and has failed to get anywhere near its prerecession level, let alone the level that would be required to keep up with an expanding student population. Along with the dismal shortfall in public sector employment, due to the Great Recession and the ensuing austerity at all levels of government, public education jobs are still 236,000 less than they were seven years ago. The number of teachers rose by 41,700 over the last year. While this is clearly a positive sign, adding in the number of public education jobs that should have been created just to keep up with enrollment, we are currently experiencing a 410,000 job shortfall in public education. Short sighted austerity measures have a measurable impact, hitting children in today’s classrooms.
Teacher employment and the number of jobs needed to keep up with enrollment, 2003–2015
|Number of jobs||Jobs needed to keep up with student enrollment|
Source: EPI analysis of Current Employment Statistics public data series and U.S. Department of Education (2014)
What to Watch on Jobs Day: The Teacher Gap, Wages, and Prime-age EPOP
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the September numbers on the state of the labor market. I will be watching for upward revisions to August’s employment numbers, which came in lower than expected. As usual, I’ll be paying close attention to the prime-age employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) and nominal wages, which are two of the best indicators of labor market health. Friday’s report will also give us a chance to examine the “teacher gap”— the gap between actual local public education employment and what is needed to keep up with growth in the student population
Prime-age EPOP—the share of the working age population who is actually working—fell dramatically during the Great Recession. It saw some solid increases once the recovery began to take hold, but unfortunately remains below the lowest point of the past two business cycles and has stagnated for much of this year, as job growth has only been fast enough to keep up with the growth of the working age population. Before we can say that the labor market is truly back to normal, we need to see faster job growth—to employ new labor market entrants, unemployed workers, and the 3+ million missing workers who have left or never entered the labor market because of weak job opportunities.
New Scandals Revealed by the New York Times: How the H-1B Visa is Used to Ship American Jobs Overseas
The New York Times has a front page story today about three new cases of H-1B abuse as a follow-up to the Disney scandal it reported on in June. This one, too, features household names: Toys R Us and New York Life. It also includes academic publishing powerhouse, Cengage, whose textbooks are used in college campuses across the country. Those companies have been outsourcing work to companies with track records as major H-1B abusers that use the program to ship jobs overseas: Accenture, TCS, and Cognizant.
The Times story, written by Julia Preston, outlines a process I have written quite a bit about over the years: how the H-1B program, which Congress created to help U.S. companies fill jobs here in the United States, is actually used to facilitate the shipping of American jobs overseas to low-cost countries like India. This, in fact, is the most common use of the H-1B program, which India’s Commerce Minister Kamal Nath dubbed the “outsourcing visa” in 2007.
Preston reports that Tata Consultancy Services sent Indian workers to a Toys R Us facility in New Jersey, where they shadowed U.S. accounting employees, learning their jobs and writing up manuals to train employees back in India how to do the same work and replace the U.S. employees. The result was unemployment for middle-class, middle-aged Americans and the loss of 67 jobs in New Jersey. A company spokesperson was unapologetic, telling the Times that the outsourcing “resulted in significant cost savings.”
The Case Against Raising Interest Rates Before Wage Growth Picks Up
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog.
I’ve been arguing for the past year that until nominal wage growth picks up considerably, the Federal Reserve has little to fear about price inflation being pushed above its 2 percent target. The logic of focusing on wage growth is pretty easy to explain.
First, note that nominal (i.e., not inflation-adjusted) wage growth can rise as fast as economy-wide productivity without putting any upward pressure on prices. Say that both nominal wages and productivity rose 2 perecnt in a year. What would happen to the cost per unit of output? It would not rise at all. Hourly wages would climb 2 percent, but the amount produced in each hour of work—the definition of productivity—would also rise by 2 percent, so costs per unit of output (or, prices) would not budge. If we assume that trend productivity growth in the U.S. economy is roughly 1.5 percent per year, this means that only nominal wage growth faster than 1.5 percent puts any upward pressure on prices.
Now, the Fed isn’t committed to zero upward pressure on prices. Fed officials say they’re comfortable with 2 percent inflation. (I’d argue that they should be comfortable with inflation well above that, up to 5 percent, but we’ll take their target for now.) This price target means that nominal wage growth can be 2 percent higher than trend productivity growth before wages threaten to push inflation over the Fed’s target. We would need to see nominal wage growth of 3.5 percent, substantially higher than what it has been since the recovery began, before labor costs start threatening to push inflation beyond the Fed’s comfort zone. (There is a handy nominal wage tracker on the Economic Policy Institute’s website that covers a lot of this ground.)
All that said, in a speech last week, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen included a footnote that argued against the relevance of wage targeting. The upshot was this sentence: “More generally, movements in labor costs no longer appear to be an especially good guide to future price movements.” This footnote reinforced other recent statements from Dr. Yellen that seem to leave the door open to the Fed tightening well before any increase in nominal wages shows up in the data. I would argue that this is almost exactly wrong.
Disability and Employment Revisited
Alarming statistics that show large declines in the employment and labor force participation of Americans with disabilities are often cited to support the claim that workers in poor health but able to work are increasingly opting out of the workforce to claim disability benefits. However, these statistics don’t account for a weak labor market, an aging population, the rise in women’s labor force participation, or problems with self-reported disability measures. If one takes these factors into account, there’s no evidence that more workers with comparatively mild impairments are exiting the workforce to claim disability benefits.
The American Institutes of Research (AIR) has a new report by Michelle Yin and Dahlia Shaewitz showing that the labor force participation of Americans with disabilities fell from 25 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2014, based on data from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau (CPS-ASEC—henceforth CPS). Tying this to a broader decline in the labor force participation of working-age adults, the authors warn that “this situation leaves the United States with an even smaller pool of workers to support the recovering economy. “
In the same vein, a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute cites a “nearly 50 percent decline in the employment rate of Americans with disabilities since 1981.” Echoing critiques of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program I’ve discussed in earlier blog posts, Biggs attributes the problem to “looser eligibility standards and stagnating wages that made disability benefits, averaging $1,222 a month for new beneficiaries last year, more attractive relative to work for the less-skilled.” Though Yin and Shaewitz appear more concerned with the plight of people with disabilities than with criticizing SSDI, they also suggest that the “growing number of discouraged workers with disabilities may be a result of policies that unintentionally make it easier to leave the workforce or stay out altogether.”
Pope Francis reminds us that our economic systems should reflect our moral values
During his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis is expected to address economic issues like inequality and poverty, continuing his criticism of trickle-down economic policy. These are issues that affect the lives of everyday Americans: wages for the vast majority of workers in the United States have been stagnant for 35 years despite growing productivity, lawmakers continue to chip away at workers’ right to unionize, and the gulf between top earners and the rest of the nation continues to grow.
While many have lauded Pope Francis for consistently discussing economic inequality and poverty, some on the right have been less enthusiastic. In response to the pope’s encyclical on poverty and the environment, Jeb Bush, for example, remarked, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
Bush’s dismissal of the pope’s positions on economic issues not only contradicts his earlier claims about the relationship between religion and politics, but also ignores the history of his own church. Far from emerging from a vacuum, Pope Francis is continuing a tradition of Catholic social teaching that stretches back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on the conditions facing working people. And this attempt to respond to economic and labor issues from a Christian framework is also not solely Catholic. At the same time Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical entered the intellectual sphere, American Protestants like Washington Gladden (a pastor and prominent early thinker of what would become the Social Gospel) were also working to address the conditions of working people through Christianity.
In Virtually Every State, the Poverty Rate is Still Higher than Before the Recession
Between 2013 and 2014, the poverty rate in most states was largely unchanged, according to yesterday’s release of state poverty statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). While the poverty rate fell slightly for the country as a whole, most of the changes at the state level were too small to signify a meaningful difference. As of 2014, only two states—North Dakota and Colorado—have poverty rates at or below their 2007 values, before the Great Recession.
From 2013 to 2014, the national poverty rate, as measured by the ACS, fell from 15.8 percent to 15.5 percent. Poverty rates declined in 34 states plus the District of Columbia, but only five of these changes were large enough to signify a measurable difference: Mississippi (-2.5 percentage points), Colorado (-1.0 percentage points), Washington, (-0.9 percentage points), Michigan (-0.8 percentage points), and North Carolina (-0.7 percentage points). (A number of other states had similar reductions in their poverty rates, but the sample sizes for these states are too small to tell whether these changes were statistically significant.) Alaska was the only state where the poverty rate increased significantly, rising from 9.3 percent to 11.2 percent.
The lack of improvement in state poverty rates echoes the trends we’ve seen in household income. However, the data suggest that the lack of real income growth over the past decade and a half has been even more pronounced for households at the bottom of the income scale. As of 2014, 38 states had lower median household income than in 2000, yet 47 states—nearly the entire country—had higher poverty rates in 2014 than in 2000.
State-Level Data Show Incomes Continue to Stagnate in Households Across the Map
Thursday’s release of state income data from the American Community Survey (ACS) showed that the gradual improvement in state economies from 2013 to 2014 brought little change in overall economic conditions for households in most states. The ACS data showed a slight increase in median household income for the United States overall and similar modest increases in household incomes in a majority of states—although only a handful of these increases were statistically significant.
By and large, what little improvement in household incomes occurred tended to be in states where incomes were already relatively high or where the oil and gas boom has fueled growth. Higher income states in New England and the mid-Atlantic, as well as Washington state, experienced modest gains, while incomes elsewhere were essentially flat. Kentucky (-2.6 percent) was the only state where household incomes significantly fell.
After adjusting for inflation, the largest year-over-year percentage gains occurred in Maine (+3.6 percent), Washington (+3.4 percent), Connecticut (+2.7 percent), and Colorado (+2.5 percent). The District of Columbia (+4.3 percent), North Dakota (+4.2 percent), and Mississippi (+2.8 percent) also had relatively large increases, although these changes were not statistically significant.
Workers 65 and Older Are 3 Times as Likely to Die From an On-the-Job Injury as the Average Worker
As the Boomers age and retirement insecurity forces workers to delay retirement, workers 55 and older are a growing part of the workforce. In 2014, older workers were 21 percent of the adult workforce based on hours worked—8 percentage points higher than their 13 percent share in 2000.
One unfortunate effect of this increased labor force participation is an increased exposure to workplace hazards, and with hazards come injuries and even death. Older workers are much more likely to be the victims of fatal occupational injuries than are younger workers. In 2014, nearly 35 percent of all fatal on-the-job injuries (1,621 of 4,679) occurred among the 21 percent of the workforce age 55 or older. The fatality rate for workers 65 and older is especially high—three times that of the overall workforce.
In the last year there was an alarming 9 percent increase in fatal workplace injuries among workers 55 and older, and a 17.7 percent increase among workers 65 and older. Nationwide, among all age groups, fatal workplace injuries rose from 4,585 in 2013 to 4,679 in 2014, an increase of 94 deaths. The increase in deaths among workers age 65 and older more than accounted for the entire increase in fatal on-the-job injuries.
Poverty Day Numbers Show the Need for Higher Wages
This post originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.
This morning, the US Census Bureau released annual income and poverty data showing essentially no change in the economic status of low- and middle-income households from 2013 to 2014. Despite an improving economy, the same proportion of Americans is still struggling to make ends meet. This lack of improvement in the poverty rate illustrates one of the chief catalysts behind America’s persistent poverty: stagnant wage growth that has left too many people without the means to support themselves and their families.
The official US poverty rate for 2014 was 14.8 percent. This is slightly higher than the official poverty rate reported for 2013 last year; however, last year the Census Bureau redesigned the survey that determines the poverty rate. For last year’s release, Census used both the new and old surveys in parallel, but only reported the results from the old survey. This year, they released the 2013 values from the new survey, which showed a poverty rate in 2013 of 14.8 percent—the same rate reported for 2014 in this year’s release. In 2014, the share of the population in deep poverty – with incomes less than half the poverty line – was 6.6 percent, and the share of families with income less than twice the poverty line was 33.4 percent.
This is the second year in a row that the Census Bureau’s statistics have shown that 1 in 7 American families – roughly 47 million people – have incomes too low to meet the government’s official threshold for basic subsistence, a measure long recognized as inadequate for assessing true economic need. For 2014, the poverty line for a family of four was $24,418; alternative measures show that families require far higher levels of income to achieve modest economic security, even in the country’s least expensive areas.