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Corporate profits have dramatically outpaced wages and health benefits since the turn of the century, leaving workers on the hook for more of their health care costs even as their purchasing power falls, according to a review of federal data.

Key quote: "If I were a middle-class American, I’d be outraged," said Regina Herzlinger, a professor at Harvard Business School. "I’d demand much greater transparency about how much I’m getting in health insurance and wages."

Expand chart
Data: Bureau of Economic Analysis; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

The bottom line: American workers have not seen their wages grow in tandem with the success of their employers.

Meanwhile, health spending has been growing faster than the broader economy. Health benefits consequently are getting more expensive for employers to offer, and companies are responding by making employees shoulder more of their own health care costs — either through higher premiums or higher out-of-pocket costs, like deductibles and copays.

What it means: Health care is eating up a bigger share of paychecks that already don't go as far as they used to.

  • "Plans are getting less generous because (employers) are paying more in absolute dollars," said Michael Chernew, a health economist at Harvard Medical School.
  • "Your health benefit being 10% of your compensation isn’t as meaningful today as it was 15 years ago because spending on health care has grown more quickly," added Erin Trish, a health policy professor at the University of Southern California.
  • "If a hospital visit is expensive, someone — either the employer or the worker — is going to pick up that cost," said Matt Fiedler, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Yes, but: Economists say reducing the generosity of employer health plans is not necessarily a bad thing, because generous plans might encourage people to use more health care services than they need.

Plus, "the idea that an employer should be deciding what kind of health care benefits an employee gets is kind of crazy," said Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. But, Baker adds, there has to be a viable health care alternative for workers.

What to watch: Whether employee compensation increases more quickly, especially as companies predict even bigger profits under the GOP tax plan.

  • There is no evidence the temporary, one-off bonuses announced by many companies, and attributed to the Republican tax cut bill, will drastically change the stagnant trajectory of worker compensation.

The details: The data are from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The growth of three economic indicators — corporate profits, wages, and money employers spent on health insurance for their employees — were compared with overall economic growth over the past 16 years. Health coverage and wages were singled out because workers often value those compensation items most when they take a job.

The analysis showed:

  • Corporate profits were 4.7% of the U.S. economy in 2000 and climbed to 9.1% by 2016.
  • Employer health coverage mostly stayed flat, going from 3.2% of GDP in 2000 to 3.7% in 2016.
  • Salaries and wages decreased quite a bit. They represented almost 47% of the economy in 2000 and dropped to 43.4% in 2016.

Go deeper

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CDC panel endorses Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

An advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday endorsed the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 12-to 15-year-olds, following the FDA's emergency use authorization.

Why it matters: Approval from the CDC panel was the final step needed before inoculations could be offered at any vaccination site for this age group.

  • Pfizer has said its vaccine is 100% effective at protecting against COVID-19 in a trial of more than 2,200 children between the ages of 12 and 15.

GOP lawmakers downplay Capitol riot at House hearing

Photo: Jon Cherry via Getty Images

Republican members of Congress sought to minimize the Capitol insurrection at a House hearing on Wednesday, with statements calling pro-Trump rioters "patriots" and other lawmakers falsely denying demonstrators were supporters of the former president at all.

Driving the news: The hearing comes shortly after House Republicans voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from leadership over her criticism of former President Trump's actions leading up to and on Jan. 6.

McConnell, McCarthy say 2017 tax law is "red line" in infrastructure talks

The top Republicans in the House and Senate told reporters after meeting with President Biden at the White House that "there is a bipartisan desire to get an outcome" on an infrastructure package, but stressed that revisiting the 2017 tax cuts is a "red line."

Why it matters: Wednesday marked the first time that Biden has hosted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the White House.