Conventional wisdom says that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI) is “regressive and therefore unfair.” Yet, by the standard definition of regressive tax policy, the conventional view is almost certainly false. It confuses the absolute size of the tax exclusion with its proportional effect on income. The error results from paying attention only to the marginal tax rate applied to ESI benefits as a portion of income and ignoring the fact that benefits are normally a much larger share of income for people with lower wages. This article explains the difference and then considers other distributional effects of ESI. It suggests that ESI—for those who receive it—further redistributes toward those with lesser means or greater need. The most evident effect is by need, favoring employees with families over those without. Yet there is good reason to believe there is also a redistribution by income, with the package of wages plus benefits being less unequal than wages alone would be. Therefore reformers should be much more careful before criticizing either ESI or its subsidy through the tax code as “unfair,” especially as the likelihood of enacting something better in the United States seems quite low.

You do not currently have access to this content.