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.



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


older workersThe 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​ ​Boardmeeting​. 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 percConnecticut Workers Chart 2ent, among all age groups surveyed. 

Connecticut Workers Chart 1

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. 

Retirement Nest EggThis 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%.

Finally, survey after survey shows that retirement security is among the top worry for Americans. If things were as rosy as Mr. Biggs and Mr. Schieber state, why is everyone so afraid?

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.

End Notes:
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.

social security cardDo government programs help the economy?

Looking at data from 1971 through 2012, a SCEPA Working Paper, 'How 401(k) Plans Make Recessions Worse' (soon to be published in a research volume by the Labor and Employment Relations Association), found that Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, Medicare and federal taxes are indeed good for the economy. Specifically, these programs have a stabilizing effect on the economy. By increasing consumer spending in recessions and reducing it in times of expansion, they dampen the wild swings of the business cycle.

On the other hand, 401(k) plans are destabilizing to the economy. They reduce consumer spending in recessions as savers lose 401(k) wealth in the stock market, and they increase spending in expansions when inflated 401(k) accounts make people feel wealthier. 

Consumer spending is important because it translates into jobs. During a recession when overall spending is down, the unemployment rate rises. But Social Security, disability insurance, Medicare, income taxes, and unemployment insurance keep the unemployment rate from rising even higher.

Christina Romer and David Romer also found that Social Security and other government transfer payments have a positive impact on consumption in their paper, Transfer Payments and the Macroeconomy: The Effects of Social Security Benefit Changes, 1952-1991. SCEPA's research takes this one step further by documenting how 401(k) plans reduce the efficacy of these automatic stabilizers and result in higher unemployment rates during recessions.  

The Great Recession hit working Americans and those hoping to retire harder if their retirement savings were based in 401(k)s rather than defined benefit pensions or Social Security. A recent SCEPA working paper, 'How 401(k) Plans Make Recessions Worse' (soon to be published in a research volume of the Labor and Employment Relations Association), concludes that 401(k)-type retirement plans exacerbate recessions, whereas annuity-backed retirement accounts such as defined benefit plans and Social Security stabilize the economy during both recessions and expansions - a function known as automatic stabilizers.

Social Security is a pension institution in which workers accumulate credits over their working lifetime, and those credits guarantee a level of benefits in their retirement years, because these benefits do not dependent on market gains or losses, consumption does not fluctuate. By design Social Security automatically stabilizes the economy because consumption is able to remain constant through recessionary and expansionary times.

Alternatively, 401(k)-type plans are private market-based retirement accounts, therefore their success or failure is tied directly to the booms and busts of the market. The value of these accounts increases during economic expansions and decreases during recessions, which directly and immediately impacts consumption causing consumers to reduce spending in recessions, therefore worsening the recession.

In 2008, over half of U.S. households owned 401(k)-type retirement accounts and these families and individual saw the value of those accounts drop by an average of 14%. In addition to perpetuating recessions, this study found that 401(k)-type plans reduced the automatic stabilization impact of government programs by 11 to 15%.

As a result, California, Connecticut, Oregon, Maryland and Minnesota have passed bills to implement or study state backed retirement accounts.
Retirement Legislation Success

Scott StringerOn Tuesday, June 17th, the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, joined SCEPA to host 'Confronting New York City's Retirement Crisis,' a conference with New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

At the event, Scott Stringer committed to address the retirement crisis head-on with the creation of an advisory panel to examine reform measures to provide retirement security for all New Yorkers.

SCEPA's newly published 'Retirement Readiness in New York City: Trends in Plan Sponsorship, Participation and Income Security,' conducted at the request of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, reveals a 17% drop (from 49% to 41%) between 2001 and 2011 in the percentage of New York City workers participating in a retirement plan at work. Only 12% of New Yorkers had a defined benefit (DB) plan. A DB plan guarantees workers a pension, whereas defined contribution (DC) plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs, do not. As a result, those with DB plans maintained an average income replacement rate of 90% versus those with a DC plan who had an average of replacement rate of 48%. 

The consequences of declining employer-sponsored plans and low replacement rates threaten workers' standard of living in retirement and raise the spector of increased poverty levels among the city's older residents. This research makes clear that the current system of retirement savings only protects the dwindline number of workers with traditional DB plans from a significant reduction in their living standards at retirement.