They’re two of the most common refrains in election season:
“Candidate X will raise your taxes!” “Candidate Y will take away your health care!”
In the hotly contested 2008 presidential election, one ad from Democrat Barack Obama created the perfect storm of election themes, accusing Republican John McCain of planning to increase taxes on your health care. But the ad used outdated sources to justify its claims. In this lesson, students will draw on independent experts to determine the accuracy of Sen. Obama’s charge.
This lesson comes in a basic version, for classrooms without internet access and/or students at the 8th-9th grade level, and a more advanced version, which does require internet access and is aimed at students at higher grade levels.
In this lesson, students will:
- Examine an ad from the Obama-Biden campaign that charges that John McCain’s health care plan will impose “the largest middle-class tax increase in history.”
- Research the details of John McCain’s actual health care plan to see whether or not it does increase taxes on middle-class families. Compare their findings with those of nonpartisan tax experts.
About 73 percent of Americans who have health insurance rely on their employers to provide their health insurance. For those fortunate enough to have it, employer-sponsored health care is a tremendous benefit: A yearly premium for a family is worth $12,680 on average, most of which is paid by the employer. And under current law, employees pay no income taxes on the value of their health insurance benefits. Arizona Sen. John McCain’s proposed health care plan would eliminate that benefit. Americans who receive health insurance through their employers would have to pay income taxes on the value of their policies. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama claims that the plan amounts to “the largest middle-class tax increase in history.” But the charge rests upon an out-of-date assessment from a partisan organization. And it greatly distorts McCain’s plan by completely ignoring one of its central features.
Basic version requires all handouts.
Advanced version does not require handouts 2-7.
- Obama-Biden Ad, “One Word.”
- Student Handout #1: Obama-Biden Ad, “One Word Storyboard.”
- Student Handout #2: New York Times, “McCain Health Plan Could Mean Higher Tax”
- Student Handout #3: Center for American Progress Action Fund, “John McCain’s Radical Prescription for Health Care.”
- Student Handout #4: McCain-Palin 2008, “The Facts about the McCain-Palin Health Care Plan.”
- Student Handout #5: Kaiser Family Foundation, “Cost of Health Insurance.”
- Student Handout #6: Tax Policy Center, “The Candidates’ Health Plans.”
- Student Handout #7: U.S. Census Bureau, “Current Population Survey.”
- Student Handout #8: FactCheck.org, “Health Care Spin.”
- Make enough copies of Student Handouts #1 and #8 for each student. Pass out Student Handout #1 at the beginning of Exercise #1.
- If you are doing the advanced version of the lesson plan, then each group will require internet access for the remainder of the lesson.
- If you are doing the basic version of the lesson, determine how many small groups of 3-5 students you will have, and make enough packets of the following so that each group has one copy of each: (1) a packet of Student Handouts #2 and #3 and (2) a separate packet of Student Handouts #4 through #7.
- Distribute the packets containing Student Handouts #2 and #3 after students have watched the Obama-Biden ad. Distribute the remaining packets at the beginning of Exercise #2.
- Pass out Student Handout #8 at the end of Exercise #2.
- Important Note: Teachers who are using the advanced version of the lesson plan should warn students that they are not to use FactCheck.org articles, FactCheck Wire posts, or Newsweek’s or other media reprints of FactCheck.org articles during their initial internet research. FactCheck.org articles should be referenced only at the end of Exercise #2.
Exercise #1 – Asking the Right Questions
To the teacher: The Obama-Biden ad seriously distorts John McCain’s health care plan. But some of its claims are based on real news reports and actual assessments by a think tank. It’s true, for example, that McCain’s plan would require taxing employer-sponsored health care benefits. But the ad calls that a $3.6 trillion tax hike without noting that the tax credit McCain offers would offset much of this tax increase. In fact, McCain’s plan would result in a net tax cut for many middle-class families. This exercise asks students to review the ad and to discuss the Obama-Biden campaign’s support for the claims in the ad.
Show students the Obama-Biden ad and distribute copies of Student Handout #1 so that students will have the precise language of the ad in front of them. (If your classroom does not have internet access at all, simply use Student Handout #1.)
After students have viewed the ad, divide the class into groups of 3 to 5 students each. If you are doing the basic version of the lesson plan, distribute the packets containing Student Handouts #2 and #3. If you are doing the advanced version, each group will need internet access. Ask each group to discuss the following questions:
- What claims does the Obama-Biden ad make? (Note: Having students make a list of all the individual claims will make it easier for them to check each assertion.)
- What evidence does the campaign offer to justify its claims?
- Does the New York Times article support the claims that the ad makes? What does the Times article tell you about McCain’s health care plan?
- What about the Center for American Progress Action Fund report? What assumptions does it make? What are its conclusions? Does the report say what the Obama-Biden ad says it does?
- Does the evidence convince you? How might you verify it?
Have the groups report their findings back to the class.
Exercise #2 – Cross-checking / Weighing the Evidence
To the teacher: As your students should have discovered in Exercise #1, the Obama-Biden ad does have some justification. But those sources are not entirely reliable. For one thing, both are rather old. The McCain campaign has since clarified some of its positions, making the reports out-of-date. In this exercise, students will independently verify the campaign’s supporting documents.
Have students return to their small groups. If you are doing the basic version of the lesson plan, distribute the packet containing Student Handouts #4 through #7 now. Those doing the advanced version of the lesson plan will once again need to use the internet. Have the students research the following questions:
- Does the McCain-Palin Web site make any mention of taxing employer-sponsored health benefits? What kinds of taxes would it increase? What kinds of taxes would it exempt? Is that consistent with the report in the New York Times and in the Center for American Progress Action Fund report?
- How much is the tax credit that McCain’s health care plan provides?
- How do tax credits work?
- How much is an average family’s employer-provided health care plan worth? (Hint: Students can use Straight from the Source to find groups that specialize in health care policy.)
- Current income tax brackets are at 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent. How much of a tax increase would an average family in each tax bracket see if their health care plan were to be taxed? How do the numbers compare to the tax credit that the McCain plan offers?
- The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center has assessed both candidates’ health care plans. What does the TPC say about McCain’s health care plan? Will it result in a tax increase? Who will be paying higher taxes?
- How much would a family have to earn before it would face higher taxes on health care? (Hint: Census Bureau)
Have the students report their findings back to the class. Students can then examine the FactCheck.org article, “Health Care Spin” (Student Handout #8), to see whether their assessments agree with FactCheck.org’s. Have the students discuss differences (if any).
About the Author
Joe Miller received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He is a former staff writer at FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Before joining FactCheck, he was as an assistant professor of philosophy at West Point and at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he taught logic, critical thinking, ethics and political theory. The winner of an Outstanding Teacher award at UNC-Pembroke and an Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award at the University of Virginia, Joe has more than 10 years of experience developing curricula. He is a member of the American Philosophical Association and the Association for Political Theory.
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