Towards A 21st Century Retirement System

by Robert Walker on October 15, 2010

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Poll after poll suggests that working Americans are deeply concerned about their future retirement income, and a recent analysis conducted by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College suggests that those fears are well founded. The retirement income deficit–the difference between what Americans (ages 32-64) have set aside for retirement and what they should have set aside at this time in their lives—is a staggering $6.6 trillion.  On average, that works out to a retirement deficit of about $90,000 per American household.

The flip side of the retirement income deficit is that retirement savings has not been generating the kind of aggregate national savings that we need to finance capital expansion and economic growth.  For the moment, that’s not a problem: economists are more concerned about expanding spending than savings. But in the long term, countries need high rates of saving to maintain prosperity, and the U.S. is no exception.

Meanwhile, our current patchwork system of retirement plans is falling apart at the seams. Pension coverage has been declining for decades and the “do-it-yourself” approach embodied in many 401(k) plans is a demonstrated failure. Too many workers are withdrawing money from their already depressed 401(k) balances to cover the cost of college education and other household needs, while high administrative costs and poor investment decisions are eroding the returns of those have tried diligently to save for retirement.

So where do we begin in designing a 21st century retirement system for American workers?  We should start with three overarching goals–universal coverage, adequacy, and security—and recognize that we have a long ways to go.

Presently, only about half of the private workforce is enrolled in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, and only one out of five have a traditional pension.

Even before the Great Recession, it was evident that our excessive reliance on individual retirement accounts was not working.  In 2007, just half of all families had an IRA or a 401(k)-type retirement plan and the median level of savings was just $45,000.  It’s no wonder that half of American households are headed towards an inadequately funded retirement.

Other countries, however, have faced similar challenges.  In Australia a national “superannuation” program was introduced in 1992 by the Labor government.  Employers were required to contribute 3 percent of payroll.  At the outset, the plan was strongly opposed by small businesses, but ten years later, employers were contributing 9 percent, and the program was a widely applauded success. By 2006 Australian workers had more money invested in managed funds per capita than workers in any other country. The impact on the economy?  Between 1994 and 2004, Australia’s per capita GDP increased by an impressive 2.5 percent a year, significantly faster than 1.7 percent pace recorded between 1984 and 1994.

In the Netherlands, employers have developed a popular new “collective defined contribution plan,” a hybrid of the traditional pension plan and defined contribution plans. Designed to minimize the risks borne by businesses, the employer has a fixed contribution and no additional obligations if the plan should be come underfunded. Employees receive an annual notice outlining what benefits they have accrued and what benefits they will receive if they continue working to age 65.

Neither of these approaches is perfect.  The Australian superannuation system does not pay an annuitized benefit; it pays a lump sum.  As a result, some retirees outlive their benefits.  The Netherlands approach, on the other hand, does not guarantee benefits; when the stock market declines, benefits can be reduced.  Both, however, have boosted national savings and increased retirement security.  Both countries opted for a better approach to retirement security, and so should we.

In designing a system for the United States, we should begin by recognizing the need for shared responsibility.  Employers, employees and government should all have a role.  Retirement USA, a coalition of organizations representing workers and retirees, has rallied around that approach.  The group argues, and rightly so, that employers and employees should both contribute, and that government should subsidize the contributions of lower-income workers.  They propose that contributions be pooled and professionally managed to ensure greater adequacy and security for the workers who need it most.  They also recommend that benefits should be portable and the whole system professionally managed.  These are principles worth building upon.

More than anything, what we need today is bold thinking.  Seventy-five years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, we created a Social Security system that has evolved into the most successful anti-poverty program ever devised.  Today, we have an opportunity to create a whole new approach to retirement security, one that will serve the interests of both workers and the economy.  The polls suggest that voters are eager and ready for such a new direction; what’s lacking is the political vision and leadership.

Robert Walker formerly served as Legislative Counsel for AARP.  He presently is a consultant to the Pension Rights Center.

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