We don’t think of the premiums we already pay as taxes, but maybe we should.
As the national debate about health care kicks off ahead of the 2020 presidential election, we’re going to be hearing a lot about the costs of increasingly popular progressive proposals to provide universal health care, like Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All plan.
One common refrain on the right and the center-left alike: Since the rich can’t foot the bill alone, are middle- and working-class supporters of a more socialized health care system really ready to pay as much for it as people do in some of the high-tax nations that have one?
The problem is, we already do, and we often pay more.
It’s true that by conventional measures, taxes on workers’ wages in the United States are comparatively very low and even very progressive, affecting the lowest-earning workers the least and taxing those who can afford it more.
But these measures obscure an important fact of American life: Unlike workers in many other countries, the vast majority of American employees have private health insurance premiums deducted from their paychecks.
If we reimagine these premiums as taxes, we’d realize that Americans pay some of the highest and least progressive labor taxes in the developed world.
Just how heavy is the burden placed on American workers by employer insurance premiums? By combining data from the O.E.C.D. Taxing Wages model with data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, we can see what percentage of each worker’s compensation — a figure that includes cash wages as well as the taxes and benefits employers pay on behalf of their employees — goes toward taxes and health care, and how progressive these payments really are.