The inequality of our employer-provided welfare state

Over at The Week, I have an article on the unequal access to social insurance when we rely on employers to provide these programs as fringe benefits:

[L]eaving social insurance to the market . . . layers social insurance inequality on top of rising income inequality. Liberals want to alleviate this by giving all Americans access to the kinds of social insurance benefits that the highest earners enjoy now through their jobs. [. . .] In response to the liberal impulse to combat social insurance inequality, conservatives dwell on the potential disruptions to existing private contracts that might result from expanded access.

The proliferation of social insurance benefits among high earners and flush companies is telling. It’s a market signal that basic social insurance benefits like paid sick leave or paid maternity leave are life-improving benefits that workers are willing to pay for – whether through foregone salary or taxation.

Liberal policymakers ought to loosen the grip that employers have as exclusive providers of these social insurance programs just as they did during healthcare reform. A just society requires that these aspects of the good life be made available to all Americans regardless of earning power or employer clout.

Note that this does not require tearing up contracts or abolishing employer-provided fringe benefits. It only requires crafting public alternatives that supplement the employer-provided regime.

But the idea of an employer-provided welfare state and its corresponding inequities offers a powerful framing for liberal politicians and policy minds. Access-improving reforms to the welfare state immediately run into the conservative charge that they are socialist or would turn America into a coddled Nordic state. But liberals can point at the generous benefits offered by the Facebooks and Googles of the Fortune 500 and say, “Hey, the market has spoken. These benefits are goods that more people ought to have access to.” It’s not about giving low-income Americans what Sweden has. It’s about giving them what Google has.

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