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.


GRAs Would Supplement an Expanded Social Security

GRAs would not compete with or supplant Social Security. As social insurance against disability and poverty in old age, Social Security must be protected and expanded.

As I wrote in the Huffington Post, "The first step to solve the coming retirement crisis is to make Social Security solvent, without reducing benefits for lower- and middle-income persons....Instead of cutting benefits for these persons, we believe it would make more sense to expand the revenue available to finance Social Security. In our judgment, this represents a far better approach to improving retirement security for all Americans." 

downward mobility imageGRAs are individual accounts that would supplement Social Security. Social Security was not designed nor intended to provide an individual with all the income they would need in retirement. Rather, Social Security is considered one leg of a three-legged stool. The other legs are income from a retirement plan and personal savings. Over the last 40 years, traditional employer-provided defined benefit (DB) pensions have been displaced by defined contribution (DC) plans, including 401(k)s. Not only are 401(k)s ineffective retirement savings vehicles, they are only provided to half of American workers. 

The result of this trajectory is a retirement crisis. Workers without retirement plan coverage cannot save enough for retirement. 401(k) participants are often little better off than those without any coverage, as evidenced by the numbers. Those nearing retirement, including those without access to plan, have a median retirement savings of $12,000.  

GRAs are Designed Like Traditional Pensions to Lower Fees

GRAs are designed to mimic the best practices of traditional DB pensions. DBs provide workers with the benefits of pooled savings, low fees economies of scale, and lifelong income in retirement. These characteristics also allow DB plans to provide better investment returns than 401(k)s or IRAs.

The GRA doesn't obligate fund managers to invest in private equity. It merely allows the trustees, operating under the GRA's fiduciary requirements, the opportunity to invest in private equity if it benefits the participant. DB's have proven this to be true - that the inclusion of alternative asset classes has earned participants higher returns at lower risk.

GRAs would require that private investment managers compete against each other for the work, keeping fees as low as possible. Professional fund managers, including private equity funds, are in DB funds now. The issue is not whether they should be used, but whether or not they receive excessive compensation for poor returns. The GRA ensures that taxpayers and GRA contributors are not taken advantage of and get the best possible deal. This is done through transparent governance, pooled accounts and competition – three hallmarks of DB plans.

SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci was named to Philadelphia’s Task Force on Retirement Security for Private Sector Employees. Chaired by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, the 16-person group is charged with issuing a report to the Council recommending policy solutions to address the city’s retirement crisis.

In 2016, SCEPA produced a report for the City Council at the request of Councilwoman Parker describing the retirement crisis in Philadelphia. It found that only 47% of Philadelphia’s workforce has access to a retirement plan at work, compared with 53% of workers nationally. Philadelphia’s seniors are more likely to be poor or near poor, with 50% having incomes below 200% of the poverty line, compared with 31% nationally.

Philadelphia is the latest in a series of cities and states to recognize and confront the retirement crisis. Ghilarducci sits on a similar commission for New York State and has been asked to advise on plans in some of the 29 states that have proposed or implemented retirement reform in the past five years.

“Philadelphia is not waiting for the federal government to act on the upcoming retirement crises” according to Ghilarducci. “We at SCEPA found the average 401(k) and IRA balance for older workers is $14,500 and half the workforce does not have access to a retirement plan at work. Middle class retirees risk working into their 70s or living an impoverished retirement. We hope to help all Philadelphia workers retire by contributing to a professionally managed, low fee retirement account that pays a pension for life.”

In the absence of federal action, cities and states have taken the lead in proposing solutions to the retirement crisis. But to provide everyone a viable path out of the retirement crisis requires a national solution. Ghilarducci proposes Guaranteed Retirement Accounts -- mandatory, universal savings accounts with a guaranteed rate of return -- as the best way to ensure that everyone can retire with dignity.

More than 1 in 10 Older Workers Who Want a Job are Unemployed or Underemployed Tweet: More than 1 in 10 older workers who want a job are unemployed or underemployed #JobsReport</a> width=

This morning’s job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates a 3.6% unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older in September, an increase of 0.1 percentage points from August. Given this low rate, the labor market for older workers appears healthy. However, if we include all those over 55 who reported in August they would like a job, more than 1 in 10 were either unemployed or underemployed.

Unemployment Rate Overstates Labor Markers for Older WorkersThe 3.6% headline unemployment rate, referred to as U-3 by the BLS, includes only workers who actively sought work last month. The BLS also reports U-6 for all workers, a broader definition of unemployment that also includes those who looked for work within the past year or worked part-time while wanting full-time jobs. However, this still misses the “hidden unemployed,” those who would like a job but gave up looking more than a year ago. Since the BLS doesn’t compute this number, we use the latest available Current Population Survey (CPS) data from August to calculate an unemployment rate that includes the hidden unemployed, which we call U-7.

The BLS reports an August headline U-3 unemployment rate for older workers of 3.5%. Using CPS data, the same data used by the BLS to calculate U-3, we calculate the broader U-6 measure at 8.7% for workers over 55, and our inclusive U-7 rate at 11.1%. U-3 represents 1.3 million older Americans who looked for a job in the month of August, U-6 includes an additional 425,000 people who looked for work within the last year and 1.4 million who worked part-time while wanting full-time work, and U-7 includes an additional one million hidden unemployed.

Many discouraged older workers give up looking for a job and involuntarily retire. However, early retirement is far from a panacea. First, retiring early means lower monthly Social Security benefits. Second, because households nearing retirement have a median of only $12,000 in retirement savings, early retirement increases the risk of downward mobility and old-age poverty.

With more than 1 in 10 older workers either unemployed or underemployed, delaying retirement is not a solution to the failings of the retirement savings system. Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) provide a mechanism to ensure workers save throughout their careers and insure against the risk of old-age poverty due to job loss.


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Unemployment Rates U3, U6, ReLab

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Participating in a Retirement Plan


nancy pelosi and rescuing retirementOn Tuesday, September 20, 2016, POLITICO's Ben White hosted co-authors Teresa Ghilarducci and Blackstone President Tony James for a "Cocktails and Conversation" event featuring their new book, Rescuing Retirement.

The event welcomed representatives from the media, government, industry, non-profits and advocacy groups as stakeholders in the need to solve the retirement crisis. Ghilarducci and James, left, shared their book and proposal for Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ghilarducci and James are working to lift up the efforts of 27 states working to provide a retirement plan for all Americans. The GRA would provide all workers with a safe place to earn higher rates of return than in a 401(k) and ensure workers a stable income for the rest of their lives.

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.

“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.



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Older Workers in Bad Jobs




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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.