Conservatives Misread New Report In Rush To Attack Obamacare

Right-wing media figures rushed to claim the Affordable Care Act will destroy 2 million jobs, citing a new Congressional Budget Office report, but that's not what the report found -- the CBO report projected that the law will give workers the freedom to voluntarily reduce their employment after gaining health insurance. 

The CBO released its Budget and Economic Outlook for the years 2014 to 2024 on February 4, which projected in part that the number of full-time workers would decline by about 2 million by 2017. Right-wing media quickly pounced on the report to distort the CBO's projections about the ACA's effect on future employment.

In a post on her Washington Post blog, Jennifer Rubin claimed the report “confirms what critics have been saying all along: Obamacare is killing jobs and squelching growth.” On Fox, America's News HQ co-host Alisyn Camerota claimed “a bombshell new CBO report” found that “Obamacare will be much worse for the economy than previously predicted,” and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs added it is “another round of devastating numbers for all Americans because the result of this is there will be fewer jobs”:

The CBO makes it clear that the decrease in workers is not due to jobs being lost -- rather, the ACA will allow workers to choose to work less. The projected change is in the supply of labor, not the demand for labor, and thus the CBO noted that the decrease would not lead to a corresponding increase in unemployment or underemployment (emphasis added):

The reduction in CBO's projections of hours worked represents a decline in the number of full-time-equivalent workers of about 2.0 million in 2017, rising to about 2.5 million in 2024. Although CBO projects that total employment (and compensation) will increase over the coming decade, that increase will be smaller than it would have been in the absence of the ACA. The decline in fulltime-equivalent employment stemming from the ACA will consist of some people not being employed at all and other people working fewer hours; however, CBO has not tried to quantify those two components of the overall effect. The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses' demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked relative to what would have occurred otherwise rather than as an increase in unemployment (that is, more workers seeking but not finding jobs) or underemployment (such as part-time workers who would prefer to work more hours per week).

In a Los Angeles Times post, Michael Hiltzik explained that the difference between a decrease in the supply of labor and demand for labor is significant, quoting economist Dean Baker who noted that the change “is, in fact, a beneficial effect of the law”:

The CBO projects that the act will reduce the supply of labor, not the availability of jobs. There's a big difference. In fact, it suggests that aggregate demand for labor (that is, the number of jobs) will increase, not decrease; but that many workers or would-be workers will be prompted by the ACA to leave the labor force, many of them voluntarily.

As economist Dean Baker points out, this is, in fact, a beneficial effect of the law, and a sign that it will achieve an important goal. It helps “older workers with serious health conditions who are working now because this is the only way to get health insurance. And (one for the family values crowd) many young mothers who return to work earlier than they would like because they need health insurance. This is a huge plus.”

The ACA will reduce the total hours worked by about 1.5% to 2% in 2017 to 2024, the CBO forecasts, “almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor--given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”  That translates into about 2.5 million full-time equivalents by 2024--not the number of workers, because some will reduce their number of hours worked rather than leaving the workforce entirely.

The right-wing media's failure to correctly interpret the CBO's findings is not surprising, considering a similar report released in 2011 was seized on by conservatives who falsely claimed the law would eliminate 800,000 jobs.