This tax season, I'm volunteering at a local not-for-profit that helps low-income people file their tax returns. It's been an eye-opening experience.
Let me start by reiterating what many others have said before. The earned income tax credit, which returns cash to qualifying low-wage workers, even when they owe nothing in taxes, is one of the most important anti-poverty programs of the past half-century.
It's especially beneficial to the nation's nearly 12 million single parents, 4 in 5 of whom are women, 2 in 3 of whom are white, and 1 in 3 of whom are poor. They are collectively raising 27% of the nation's children.
Disbelief, gratitude, joy—those are the emotions I've seen on the faces of single mothers with less than $25,000 in income when they learn they will get back a couple thousand dollars beyond what was deducted from their paltry paychecks.
I've also seen the extent to which Obamacare, which is a big issue at tax time for low-wage workers, aids upward mobility. Earlier this month, Manuel Hernandez, a 39-year-old warehouse worker, stopped by for tax help (all personal details have been slightly altered).
For most of the past 20 years, Hernandez, an Arizona native, worked as kitchen help in Chicago-area restaurants. He never had health insurance because his employers didn't provide it.
When I asked him if he had health insurance now, he beamed. "I got Obamacare."
He whipped out the form sent to him by the government. It showed his plan had cost $540 a month. His premium subsidy, based on his $20,000 annual income, was $450 a month. He paid the other $90 himself.
As I entered the data into the software that would allow him to avoid the penalty, Hernandez confided that he had dropped his plan last month. Having coverage for the first time in his life had encouraged him to look for a job with health benefits.
In December, he found one at a trucking company. His pay went up handsomely, too. "I'm hoping it works out," he said as he tugged on the logo hat from his new employer.
I got a very different vibe from Brandon Williams, who works steadily but part time as a shelf stocker at a major drugstore chain. He earned just $12,000 last year. Did he have health insurance? Absolutely. Only, it ended in November when he turned 26 and he was thrown off his mother's plan.
I informed Williams that he qualified for an exception in 2017 since he only went one month without coverage. But he should consider signing up, I advised, or at tax time next year, he might get slapped with a penalty. The mandate's repeal, included in the tax cut passed in December, doesn't go into effect until 2019.
He shrugged. He wanted full-time work and had applied at a different drugstore chain. He wasn't hopeful. They also had mostly part-time openings without benefits for high school graduates like him.
Our national conversation has devolved to where one major political party is now touting skimpy health plans and Medicaid work requirements. In their view, affordable health insurance is a gift to the poor, not the right of every citizen.
My tax-prep experience suggests it is a gift—to employers that offer substandard wages and part-time jobs with no benefits. Indeed, some of the major healthcare and other employers I'm seeing have had no problem raising billions of dollars for mergers and acquisitions, stock buybacks or increased dividends. Yet they don't seem to have the cash flow or inclination to offer full-time jobs with benefits to their low-skilled but necessary workforce.
Until we start talking about the root causes of our dysfunction, we will never have an honest conversation about how to move toward universal health coverage.