Retirement Equity Lab

SCEPA's Retirement Equity Lab, led by economist and retirement expert Teresa Ghilarducci, researches the causes and consequences of the retirement crisis that exposes millions of American workers to experiencing downward mobility in retirement. As a result, SCEPA has developed a policy proposal known as Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRA) to provide stable pensions to the 63 million workers who currently have none.


Teresa Ghilarducci, economist and director of The New School’s Retirement Equity Lab (ReLab), and Hamilton “Tony” James, president of Blackstone, have combined their academic and business expertise to advance a powerful reform idea—Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs). Outlined in their new book, Rescuing Retirement, GRAs are individual retirement accounts that would provide universal coverage, low fees, and professional investment management.


Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University (NYU) presented his latest paper, “U.S. Pensions in the 2000’s: The Lost Decade” on October 14, 2016 as part of the Economics of Aging speaker series. His work examines trends in pension, total wealth, and wealth inequality between 1986 and 2010, a period during which 401(k) plans largely displaced traditional defined benefit retirement plans in the private sector. 

Presentation: U.S. Pensions in the 2000's: The Lost Decade

The Political Economics of Aging speaker series is a forum for academics and practitioners to share and engage in cutting edge research in social policy and the political economy of aging. The series is designed to forge interdisciplinary connections and examine how to progressively manage an aging society. The series is sponsored by SCEPA's Retirement Equity Lab, led by economists and retirement experts Teresa Ghilarducci and Tony Webb.

The event was free and open to the public.

Mauricio Soto presented a lecture titled, “Best and Worst Global Pension Policies,” as part of the Economics of Aging speaker series. Soto is an economist in the Expenditure Policy Division of the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department. His work assesses the fiscal impact of social spending programs and expenditure policy. Before joining the IMF, he was a researcher on Social Security issues at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and the Urban Institute.

The Political Economics of Aging speaker series is a forum for academics and practitioners to share and engage in cutting edge research in social policy and the political economy of aging. The series is designed to forge interdisciplinary connections and examine how to progressively manage an aging society. The series is sponsored by SCEPA's Retirement Equity Lab, led by economists and retirement experts Teresa Ghilarducci and Tony Webb.

“Older Workers at a Glance” Provides a Full Picture of the Labor Market for Near Retirees  Tweet: New #JobsReport: “Older Workers @ a Glance” Full picture of labor market for 55+ w/inadequate#retirement savings width=

The historically low headline unemployment rate for older workers - 3.5% in August according to today’s BLS jobs report - is frequently cited as evidence that people can can continue to work if they have inadequate retirement income.

However, the official unemployment rate overstates the strength of the labor market for older workers. For example, an increasing share of older workers are in “bad jobs” - 29.1% in July 2016 compared to 27.0% in July 2006 - that pay less than two-thirds of the median wage (which was $880 per week last month).

To provide a full picture of the reality older workers face in the job market, we are introducing “Older Workers at a Glance.” This one-of-a-kind feature reports key labor market statistics (described below) for workers over 55 as a supplement to our monthly analysis of market trends.

This documentation seeks to provide for a more informed discussion of the policies needed to address the retirement crisis and the resulting downward mobility of workers after a lifetime of work. Rather than cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age, we need to ensure all workers a viable path to retirement security through Guaranteed Retirement Accounts on top of Social Security.



Older Workers at a Glance Dashboard Headline and Total Unemployment Bad Jobs Labor Force Participation Weekly Earnings No Pension Image HTML map generator


Two of today’s most contentious policy issues are income inequality and the future of Social Security. While often discussed separately, ReLab’s new working paper, “Reducing Inequality Through Social Security,” investigates if Social Security reform can help reduce inequality for all U.S. workers.

The paper, co-authored by Kyle Moore and Peter Arno, uses data from the Social Security Administration to determine that income inequality would experience a small reduction if Social Security reform includes both removing the maximum taxable earnings cap, the “salary cap,” and increasing the minimum benefit. This effect is due to ensuring that all workers pay the same percentage of their earnings into the program while providing increased support to those below the federal poverty level.

This research supports the need to focus not only on ensuring Social Security’s solvency for future generations, but also building the program’s ability to support all working Americans.

dependent 100342 640by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., ReLab Research Director

On August 14, 2016, Financial Times' reporter Alistair Gray describes consumer "fury" over insurance companies' efforts to increase premiums for long-term care, sometimes doubling the cost. 

Consumers thought they were doing the right thing because Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly, does not cover the cost of long-term care. The cost of care exceeds the financial capacity of most elderly households. Many uninsured households end up impoverished and dependent on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the indigent. These costs are a signficiant factor driving increases in Medicare expenditure. 

Is private long-term care insurance a means of both providing financial security to the elderly and reining in Medicaid costs? The answer is "no," for three reasons.

First, more than a quarter of all households with long-term care insurance at age 65 lapse their policies prior to death. For these households, long-term care insurance is worse than useless. They pay premiums for many years, often receiving nothing in return. Worse, those who lapse are the households most likely to subsequently require care.

Second, for each dollar in premiums paid, only 60 to 70 cents is paid out in benefits. This is not because long-term care insurers are making big profits - they are not. The remaining 30-40 cents is eaten up by the high costs of doing business - employing actuaries, underwriters, paying sales commission, and so on. In contrast, administrative costs represent less than one percent of Social Security expenditures.

Third, private long-term care insurance doesn't achieve the basic purpose of any insurance, namely to transfer risks from the individual to the insurer. This is because insurers have the right to increase premiums if they are able to convince their state insurance regulator that they got their actuarial assumptions wrong. Although a household purchasing insurance reduces the risk posed by long-term care costs, it takes on an entirely new risk, namely that the insurer increase its premiums. Insurance may do little to reduce the household's overall risk exposure.

So why allow insurers to increase premiums? The policy justification is that if insurers were not permitted to increase premiums, they might exit the market, and worse, might become insolvent. But allowing insurers to increase premiums makes it impossible for households to evaluate the merits of purchasing coverage. The household has no idea whether the company quoting the lower premium really represents better value, and whether it would be better off not purchasing coverage at all. We are not convinced that a prohibition on premium increases would result in insurers refusing to offer coverage. But even if it did, we may be better off with no market at all than with a market characterized by high lapse rates, high administrative costs, and little effective risk transfer.

A Lifetime of Stagnant Wages for the Middle Class Makes it Harder to Save for Retirement Tweet: A Lifetime of Stagnant Wages for the Middle Class Makes it Harder to Save for Retirement #JobsReport width=

The July unemployment rate for workers over 55 is 3.7%, an increase of 0.2 percentage points from last month. Although unemployment is low, older workers’ earnings have not increased since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. As we discussed last month, this indicates a weak labor market.

Annual Real Wage Growth for MenFor most workers, this reflects a continuation of the labor market conditions they experienced over their working lives. Between 1979 and 2015, increasing wage inequality contributed to wage stagnation for workers aged 25-54. Over this period, average real earnings increased by 1.4% a year for men in the top 10% of the income distribution, but only increased by 0.1% a year for the remaining 90% of men.

Wage stagnation makes it harder for workers of all ages to start or increase saving for retirement. Without a raise, workers can only increase saving by reducing their current level of consumption.

Reflecting the many challenges workers face when saving for retirement, our analysis of Survey of Consumer Finances data shows that only 52.4% of working households ages 55-64 have any type of retirement savings plan. For those households participating in a 401(k) plan, the median retirement account balance is a mere $111,000.

Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) will ensure that workers’ sacrifices are rewarded. Fees are kept to a minimum, ensuring that workers benefit from investment returns. And at retirement, workers will receive a guaranteed lifetime income rather than having to gamble on not outliving their savings.

Unlike Prior Recoveries, Older Workers Face Wage Stagnation After the Great Recession Tweet: Unlike Prior Recoveries Older Workers Face Wage Stagnation After the Great Recession width= 

The unemployment rate for older workers was 3.5% in June, increasing by 0.1 percentage points from May. The wage growth in June for older workers is not released today. According to conventional economic theory, a low headline unemployment rate is associated with rising wages. But unlike prior economic recoveries, older workers’ earnings stagnated in the five years after the Great Recession.

Older Worker Wage Stagnation Between 2010 and 2015, workers over 55 with full-time jobs experienced a decline in median real weekly earnings (-0.8%). In prior recoveries, older workers experienced high earnings growth. In the five years after the 2001 recession, earnings grew 2.3%, 1.0% in the five years after 1991, and 5.9% after the 1982 recession.

Wage stagnation can indicate a weak labor market and low bargaining power, even when headline unemployment is low. And while it affects all workers in today’s labor market, stagnation especially harms older workers.

The average household approaching retirement has retirement savings of only $150,000. In retirement, this sum will only provide $500 a month in income - far short of what’s needed to maintain retirees’ standard of living. However, near retirees' need to prioritize savings is hamstrung by stagnant wages, forcing them to choose between cutting pre-retirement consumption or arriving at retirement with insufficient savings.

America faces a retirement crisis brought on by poorly designed retirement plans and compounded by wage stagnation. Cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age would further erode retirement security. Americans need a reliable way to save for retirement in addition to Social Security. Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) open a path to retirement security by providing all workers retirement savings plans with guaranteed growth.

Without changes to our failed system, a growing number of Americans will ride a wave of insufficient savings to deprivation in their old age. More than half of American households who are near retirement have less than $12,000 saved. The number of 65-year-olds per year who are poor or near poor between 2013 and 2022 will increase by 146%.

A recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center's (BPC) Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings takes the first steps toward reform by recognizing the principles necessary to create effective retirement savings vehicles. The Commission's call for Retirement Security Plans to pool resources and decrease administrative burdens supports the need for economies of scale and universal access. The call to expand myRA and create a nationwide minimum-coverage standard supports the need for mandated participation and a shared responsibility between employers and employees. The call for a lifelong income plan supports the need for annuities to ensure seniors don't outlive their savings.

state image"Growing inequality has made retirement increasingly available to only a few," said Commission member and SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci. "We need a federal plan that serves everyone. With 27 states actively pursuing retirement reform, these leaders have made it clear that the political will for change exists. Historically, we have relied on state innovation to spur federal action. As with Social Security and healthcare (see image), this report recognizes that federal legislation is necessary to provide employers and employees consistency and portability across states.

The Commission recognizes the failure of our current system and sets us on the right path to reform. However, it does not claim these recommendations, even if fully implemented, will solve the retirement crisis."

Ghilarducci stressed that she looks forward to taking the next steps toward comprehensive reform through supporting Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs). A joint policy proposal issued with Hamilton "Tony" James of Blackstone (from the diverse backgrounds of academia and investment banking), GRAs would provide savings accounts that advance the same principles in the Commission's report. By creating individual accounts on top of Social Security with mandated contributions from both employers and employees, these accounts would pool investments, guarantee a return, and provide lifelong annuity payments.

The report also put forward reform measures for Social Security. Ghilarducci joined with fellow commissioner Alan Reuther to discuss their disagreement with some of the recommended policies on Huffington Post in a blog titled, "A Better Way to Fix to Social Security." 

On June 15, 2016, Tony Webb, director of research at SCEPA's Retirement Equity Lab (ReLab), presented a SCEPA report on Philadelphia's retirement crisis before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Labor and Civil Service. The report, "Are Philadelphians Ready for Retirement?," was done on behalf of Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker and the City Council of Philadelphia. Following the hearing, Councilwoman Parker announced plans to introduce a resolution calling for the creation of a task force to address retirement security for private-sector workers in the city.

Workers across the country face a retirement crisis. However, workers in Philadelphia are faring worse than average. 

Philly sponsorship charts
Key Findings:

  1. Philadelphia’s senior citizens are more likely than senior citizens nationally to rely on Social Security for more than 90% of their retirement income.
  2. Only 48 percent (less than half) of all Philadelphia workers ages 25-64 had access to an employersponsored retirement savings plan, compared with 53 percent of workers nationwide.
  3. Only 37 percent of Philadelphia’s workers ages 25-64 participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, compared with 45 percent nationwide.
  4. The median near-retirement household in the state’s metropolitan areas had enough financial assets to generate at most $550 a month in retirement income.