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.
SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci joined NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook on February 25, 2015, to discuss President Obama's recent announcement at AARP that the Department of Labor would move forward with a fiduciary rule requiring brokers to put their clients' retirement savings before their own profits.
The rule is expected to protect future retirees from high fees charged by brokers investing individual's retirement savings. In May 2012, Demos, a nonprofit advocacy group and SCEPA partner on retirement security, published the report "The Retirement Savings Drain: Hidden and Excessive Costs of 401(k)s." Written by Policy Analyst and New School PhD student Robbie Hiltonsmith, it finds that the average two-member household will lose over $150,000 over their lifetime from their retirement savings to pay these fees - without their knowledge.
"States Move to Implement Retirement Accounts," a February 4, 2015, article by Joel Kranc of Institutional Investor, summarizes the movement of retirement reform from the federal level to the state level. "But whereas the federal level is talking, the states are taking action on their own plans," says Kranc. He cites Illinois and California as the early leaders in the effort, both having passed legislation. He summarizes, "Some of the states taking a look at these types of plans are Connecticut, Vermont and Minnesota, which have passed legislation that creates frameworks for a plan. Maryland and Oregon have started taskforces, and 15 others are considering their options as well."
Kranc takes it one step further, interviewing experts to assess the quality and content of plans under consideration. 'Illinois is the first and boldest among 37 states that have something in the works,' notes Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the New School for Social Research in New York. 'But Illinois has passed the most simple, least regulated and therefore least helpful plan. Other states are looking at ways to create exchanges or a public option that creates a low-cost option. This is certainly a state-by-state movement for add-on plans,' she says."
In 1950, the United States could claim racial equity in one important respect - both black and white American men who reached age 65 could expect to live twelve more years to age 77.
By 2010, white men at age 65 were projected to live almost 2 years longer than black men, while white women could expect to live one year longer than black women.
Given that gaps in life expectancy at age 65 exist between black and white Americans, the fact that the “average” American is living longer cannot be used to justify proposals to raise the retirement age. In fact, the data reveal that such a proposal will disproportionately impact Blacks.
Read SCEPA's full report investigating the racial disparities behind proposals to raise the retirement age.
The January 2015 employment report issued today by the U.S. Department of Labor reports that 1.41 million workers over age 55 were ready to work and actively seeking a job - but could not find one.
Unfortunately, this represents an increase in unemployment for older workers - the opposite of declining rates of unemployment in the overall labor market. January's unemployment rate for older workers is 4.1%, up from 3.9% in December. This increase represents an additional 60,000 older, unemployed workers.
Increased competition among older workers in the job market fuels the decline in older workers' bargaining power and a subsequent decrease in retirement benefits available in the workplace, such as employer-sponsored retirement plans.
Today's employment report is a warning for policy makers calling for a rise in Social Security's retirement age. Rising unemployment rates for workers over 55 shows the labor market is unlikely to be able to absorb an increase in older workers who cannot afford to retire when they choose.
The January issue of the Retirement Income Journal features a review of "Falling Short," the new book about America's retirement crisis from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, by SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci. In it, she describes the book as an elegant and comprehensive description of the problems causing the crisis, but disagrees with the proposed solution: working longer and retiring lat
The December 2014 employment report issued today by the U.S. Department of Labor reports the unemployment rate for workers over the age of 55 - those looking for work - at 3.9%. More than 1.35 million workers over age 55 were pounding the pavement looking for a job.
These figures mark a decline in the unemployment rate of older workers from 4.5% in November, when more there were 1.53 million workers over age 55 in search of work. However, the proportion of older workers with jobs did not change; the employment-to-population ratio remained at 38.3%.
Rather than signaling that a significant number of unemployed workers found work, the decline in the unemployment rate for older workers may be due to the fact that 112,000 workers over age 55 left the labor force in December.
SCEPA research has found that older people who lose their jobs are at a higher risk of remaining unemployed and withdrawing permanently from the labor force. This involuntary early retirement leaves older workers at risk of poverty as well as a loss of health insurance years before they are eligible for Social Security benefits. SCEPA estimates this costs the government between $10.5 and $9.4 billion per year in income, food and health support.
On November 19, 2014, Director Teresa Ghilarducci presented SCEPA's latest research on the Declining Access to Retirement Plans in Connecticut at the Connecticut Retirement Security Board meeting. Earlier this year, the Connecticut General Assembly created the Connecticut Retirement Security Board through the Public Act 14-217 to conduct a feasibility study on a state-level public IRA. If approved, the state-level IRA would create an automatic IRA administered through an appointed trust fund board, as in California. Employers with five or more workers would be required to participate unless they offer a different retirement savings plan to their employees. Unlike most IRAs bought in the private market, the money would be paid out as a lifetime annuity with an option for workers to select a lump-sum, helping to ensure that people will not outlive their assets while preserving worker's ability to choose the option best suited to their financial needs. Finally, a modest guarantee and low fees would protect the money saved by hard-working employees.
The latest SCEPA research shows that Connecticut is in need of a solution to their pending retirement crisis. As of 2010, only 59% of employed Connecticut residents aged 25-64 worked for an employer who offered access to a retirement savings plan, down from 66% in 2000. Four out of ten workers residing in Connecticut do not have access to a retirement plan at work. What could be considered the most detrimental is that workers closest to retirement (55-64) had the largest drop in sponsorship, 15 percent, among all age groups surveyed.
On November 12, 2014, the Wall Street Journal published "Pension Access for All is Priority for New York City's Public Advocate." The article covers Public Advocate Letitia James' announcement that she plans to introduce legislation in the New York City Council to study how to create pooled retirement savings accounts for city residents without access to employer-sponsored pension plans.
James stated, "Quite simply, too many New Yorkers are not prepared for retirement." She cited research from SCEPA's Retirement Equity Lab, which analyzed city residents' preparation and ability to retire. SCEPA found that 60% of workers in the city did not have access to a retirement savings plan at work, a 17% decrease over the last 10 years.
Her announcement adds to the reform effort of City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who announced creation of an advisory board to study potential reforms at SCEPA's Confronting New York City's Retirement Crisis conference in July, 2014. Public Advocate James gave the keynote address at the event.
On September 30, 2014, PBS Frontline won an Emmy Award for their documentary 'The Retirement Gamble,' that aired on April 23, 2014. The piece investigates the financialization of retirement savings via 401(k)-type accounts and the resulting erosion of an individual's ability to retire.
SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci and Demos Senior Policy Analyst Robert Hiltonsmith, a New School alumni, were interviewed on their work documenting the structural failure of the 401(k) and its corresponding high fees. Ghilarducci states, "The 401(k) is one of the only products that Americans buy that they don't know the price of it. It's also one of the products that Americans buy that they don't even know it's quality."
SCEPA's report 'How 401(k) Plans Make Recessions Worse' describes how the structural flaws of 401(k)-type retirement plans exacerbate recessions in comparison to annuity-backed retirement accounts. The latter, including definied benefit plans and Social Security, serve as automatic stabilizers because they stabilize the economy during both recessions and expansions.
This article appeared on Huffington Post's Money blog on September 30, 2014, and as a letter to the editor under the Wall Street Journal's headline, "There Really is a Huge Retirement Crisis Developing."
The Retirement Crisis is Real
The retirement crisis is anything but imaginary. In a recent working paper, we find that only 44% of workers in the United States have access to a retirement plan at work. Except for workers with defined benefit plans, most middle class U.S. workers will not have adequate retirement income - 55% of near-retirees will only have Social Security income at age 65.
Yet, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, "The Imaginary Retirement Income Crisis," Andrew Biggs and Sylvester Schieber make a number of startling and misleading claims.
Not Enough Retirement Income
First, they claim that the average U.S. retiree has an income equal to 92% of the average American income. Yet, the latest data from the American Community Survey show that the median income of U.S. retirees1 is less than $16,000 compared to the median American worker's income of $31,000 – hardly 92%.2 Retired workers received an average of $1,294 per month in Social Security benefits as of December 2013. That adds up to a paltry $15,528 per year – far from a princely sum to live on when one's medical bills and the expenses of old age are racking up.
Social Security Supports a Stabile Economy
Second, Biggs and Schieber assert that if Social Security benefits are increased, the country will likely experience lower employment and saving rates. Our new study shows the exact opposite. Social Security benefits actually boost the economy during recessions as beneficiaries maintain spending power in a downturn.
Downward Mobility in Retirement
Third, Biggs and Schieber rightly use a reasonable measure of adequacy - retirees' ability to maintain living standards, which compares retirement income to work earnings. They refer to a Social Security Administration's Office of Retirement and Disability Policy (ORDP) report to note that in 2012 the income of the median 67-year-old exceeded his career average earnings. But it would be a mistake to make much of this statement. The median 67-year-old in the ORDP report is taken from a pool of individuals who continue to work and thus have higher earnings and higher years of education than the typical 67-year-old. Recent work by Gary Burtless shows that 67-year-old men with professional degrees are three times more likely to be working than men with a high school education or less. This ORDP pool from which the median is drawn also includes individuals who are claiming Social Security benefits. This helps explain why their incomes appear higher than their career averages.
Less Retirement Income for Gen-Xers
Fourth, Biggs and Schieber claim that the typical Gen-X (born between 1966 and 1975) household will have higher replacement rates than Depression-era birth cohorts. This claim is misleading because it uses an unorthodox measure of replacement rates. The ORDP report actually shows that the more common measure, wage-adjusted replacement rates, has deteriorated over time. Depression and WWII-era birth cohorts have replacement rates of 95% and 98%, while future retirees (born between 1966 and 1975) will have projected replacement rates of 84%.
It is very interesting that Biggs and Schieber decide to use the cited ORDP report to claim that the retirement crisis is imaginary. One of the major findings of this report is that gains in retirement income are largely going to higher socioeconomic groups (whites, the college educated, high earners, and workers with strong labor force attachments). In the age of inequality, the retirement crisis is real.
People need more savings for retirement. Mandatory, protected, and regulated individual accounts in addition to a robust Social Security system will ensure that all Americans have an adequate retirement income and can choose to work or not in their old age.
1U.S. retirees are defined as Americans who are older than 60, are out of the labor force, and had no income from earnings.
2The median worker is defined from a sample of Americans 60 years of age or younger, who were in the labor force.