I’ve spent part of this morning doing some fairly serious research on health insurance in the United States, and who doesn’t have it. My curiosity on the subject was stirred up by a couple of things: after looking at a lot of DonorsChoose proposals from schools with high poverty rates, poverty is on my mind; and the President’s veto of the Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion got me thinking about what it actually means to be poor in this country, and what (if any) relationship the official poverty threshold has to actually being able to afford to provide for your family.
I was looking at a table in a Census Bureau document on poverty and health insurance (pdf) when a possible pattern caught my eye – the percentage of people who were uninsured in “right-to-work” states looked like it was a bit higher than in states where union shops are allowed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a “right-to-work” state is one where employees cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of their employment. This tends to undercut unions, making it harder for them to get new members or bargain at new businesses.
A while back, I looked at the effect that “right-to-work” laws can have on health care costs, not just for the uninsured, but also for those of us who do have coverage. That post looked at the effects purely in qualitative terms. Today, I’m going to look at a relationship between “right-to-work” and insurance coverage, and this time I have numbers.
Unless I specifically say otherwise, I’m drawing all my information from Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006, which is a report that was prepared by the United States Census Bureau.
It should come as no surprise if I tell you that people with jobs are more likely to have health insurance than the unemployed. It should also not come as a shock to learn that 88% of Americans who have private health insurance are covered through employment benefits. That’s where (I think) the “right-to-work” issue comes into play.
Unions are good at getting employers to give their employees more. That is their whole reason for existence, so that should be yet another non-shocker. That lead me to suspect that there might be more uninsured people in states that make it hard for unions to operate to their fullest potential. The Census Bureau report didn’t specifically address that question, but I did a quick back of the envelope calculation of my own. Table 8 in the report provides the number and percentage of uninsured people sorted by state. I combined that with the list of right-to-work states found in the Wikipedia article, and looked at the percentage of uninsured in each of the two groups. On average, 16% of people in “right-to-work” states are uninsured, compared to 13% in “union shop” states.
I don’t know about you, but that looks like a fairly interesting result to me. It’s anything but conclusive, of course, since I failed to take quite a few things into account – for starters, the percentage of uninsured in each state was calculated based on a statistical sample, and has its own margin of error. I completely ignored that, on the assumption that the errors would more or less cancel each other out in the end. I also ignored a whole range of other variables that could be more important than the “right-to-work” issue. Still, it’s probably something worth thinking about the next time you hear someone bitching and moaning about how bad unions are.