When advocates talk about the advantages of government health care, they often talk about a moral obligation to ensure equal access. Or they describe the immediate health and economic rewards of giving people a way to pay for their care.

Now a novel study presents another argument for the medical safety net, at least for children: Giving them health coverage may boost their future earnings for decades. And the taxes they pay on those higher incomes may help pay the government back for some of its investment.

The study used newly available tax records measured over decades to examine the effects of providing Medicaid insurance to children. Instead of looking at the program’s immediate impact on those children and their families, it followed them once they became adults and began paying federal taxes.

People who had been eligible for Medicaid as children, as a group, earned higher wages and paid higher federal taxes than their peers who were not eligible for the federal-state health insurance program. And the more years they were eligible for the program, the larger the difference in earnings.

“If we examine kids that were eligible for different amounts of Medicaid over the course of their childhood, we see that the ones that were eligible for more Medicaid ended up paying more taxes through income and payroll taxes later in life,” said Amanda Kowalski, an assistant professor of economics at Yale and one of the study’s authors.

The results mean that the government’s investment in the children’s health care may not have cost as much as budget analysts expected. The study, by a team that included economists from the Treasury Department, was able to calculate a return on investment in the form of tax revenue.

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