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.


NYTThe retirement crisis is forging unlikely alliances. The New York Times’ Mark Miller writes about how SCEPA director Teresa Ghilarducci and Blackstone President Tony James have joined forces to advocate for replacing 401(k)s with a mandatory retirement savings program on top of Social Security.

Since Dr. Ghilarducci first proposed Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRA) in 2009, the effort for reform has gained steam as policymakers recognize the chasm between what experts recommend people save and what they actually do. Most Americans, even in the upper-middle class, have saved nowhere near enough for retirement.

The will for reform is present abroad and at home. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand implemented mandatory retirement programs within the last generation - to great success. In Britain, workers can expect to receive 71% of their salary in retirement. Three U.S. states have enacted universal pension plans since 2012, and another 23 are considering a variety of proposals. According to Ghilarducci, state action is a response to federal inaction, and state policymakers would prefer federal reform.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury debuted its myRA program, which makes government-sponsored starter IRA’s widely available. However, because myRAs are voluntary and small, their impact will be limited. Nonetheless, the program reflects a broad recognition of the need for reform. The Ghilarducci-James alliance is another indicator that a comprehensive federal plan is both necessary and possible.

Today’s unemployment report - while good news for the overall economy - reveals that the number of older people in the labor market continues to outpace population growth. While we all know the number of older people is increasing as the Baby Boomers hit retirement age, this isn’t a story about demographics. It’s about a larger percentage of older workers relying on the labor market. Tweet: #JobsReport reveals hidden surge in # older workers dependent on labor market @tghilarducci

You can see this trend in both the shrinking unemployment rate for older workers and the increase in their labor force participation rate. In November, the unemployment rate for older workers was 3.7%, one of the lowest since the beginning of the recovery in 2010. More people are working or looking for work.

Number of Older Workers Grew Twice as Fast as their Population

The labor force participation rate, like the unemployment rate, includes both those looking for work as well as those who have jobs. In November, the participation rate for workers 55+ was about 40.2%, close to its peak of 40% in 2012. In 1995, only about 30% of workers over 55 participated in the labor force, an increase of 124% over the past 20 years. As a result, the labor market is flooded with 35 million older workers. In contrast, the number of prime-age workers (those between 25 and 54 years old) has not grown as fast as the prime-age population. The labor force participation rate of prime-age workers fell to about 80.7% from 80.8% in 1995.

Why are more older workers in the labor market? Given the crisis in retirement savings, some are unable to leave due to inadequate savings, the increase in 401(k)-type plans, and the lack of affordable health insurance.

Cutting Social Security benefits through raising the retirement age leaves work as the primary solution to the shortfall in retirement wealth. While it may look good to see an increasing demand for jobs among older people in an expanding economy, this rosy scenario doesn’t account for bargaining power. If the surge in older workers continues, the job market for all workers takes a hit in lower wages and increased competition between old and young.

The solution is to ensure retirement income through Guaranteed Retirement Accounts. This benefits both old and young. Older workers would have the choice to retire at their current standard of living and younger workers will see an increase in the supply of jobs.

Book CoverOn November 21, 2015, Institutional Investor published Mark Henricks’ review of SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci’s new book, “How to Retire with Enough Money and How to Know What Enough Is” (available December 15th). He describes the book as a basic guide to retirement security for low- and middle-income earners, containing the standard prescriptions (save early, save often, and delay taking Social Security until you’re 70) while offering much more.

Specifically, Henrick calls Ghilarducci’s Guaranteed Retirement Account (GRA) proposal her “primary intellectual contribution to retirement planning.” GRAs are nationwide mandatory savings plans to which workers and their employers would split a contribution of at least 5% of their income. Funds would be pooled and invested in low-cost index funds, managed by the federal government.

GRAs are the solution to what Henricks identifies as the big takeaway from the book: the failure of the “do-it-yourself” retirement savings experiment of the past 35 years. When people are left to rely on employer-sponsored retirement accounts - to which only half the workforce has access - they don’t save enough. Most Americans over age 50 have less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. This trajectory leaves half of Americans with a food budget under $5/day in retirement.

Ordinary savers aren’t to blame, given the one-two punch of wage stagnation coupled with the complexity of long-term planning in the 401(k) system. Rather, the lack of retirement savings is a systemic failure with a simple and straightforward policy solution: GRAs.

SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci and Christian Weller from the Center for American Progress (CAP) are working to address the retirement crisis by improving the federal government’s system of retirement savings incentives. On October 30th, they published a paper on The Inefficiencies of Existing Retirement Savings Incentives and hosted an event with academic and political experts to discuss the issue in depth. On November 18th, they released a second paper on Laying the Groundwork For More Efficient Retirement Savings Incentives that contains proposals for reform.

Ghilarducci and Weller’s research concludes that the federal government’s current policy to encourage retirement savings through the tax code is both inequitable and inefficient. The wealthy have higher marginal tax rates and therefore benefit more from tax deductions than the poor and middle class. Furthermore, research has shown that wealthy households would save anyways and tax deductions merely encourage them to shift their savings into retirement accounts to lower their tax bill.

The authors suggests five policy reforms to make the federal government’s retirement savings incentives more fair and effective:

  • Make the Saver’s Credit fully available to lower-income households
  • Establish and expand progressive savings matches
  • Simplify retirement savings incentives by streamlining rules
  • Limit the automatic increases of tax deductions
  • Create simple, low-cost, and low-risk options for people to save for retirement outside of employer plans

In “A Missed Business Opportunity: Senior Centers That Are Actually Fun,” SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci suggests that more and better senior centers are not only an untapped market for entrepreneurs, but also cost-effective for government.

In the U.S., there are about 5,000 adult-daycare centers for a quarter of a million seniors. The remainder of the 40 million Americans over age 65 are a large and unserved market.

The services offered to Japan’s seniors represents the possibilities in the U.S. Last year, 60 casino-themed senior centers opened in Japan, reflecting a desire for “adult” entertainment. The owner of one new casino told the Financial Times that most centers are “too childish.”

More adult-daycare facilities and increased participation could also ease financial pressure on Medicare. At such facilities, seniors are often in constant contact with professionals, who may notice symptoms before they become serious, preventing costly emergency room visits and hospital stays.

The U.S. has three types of adult-daycare facilities: social, medical, and specialized. Medical and specialized centers focus on rehab and managing conditions like Alzheimer’s and Diabetes. Social centers provide a hub for seniors to connect for meals and recreational activities. Both seniors and the insurance companies that pay for their care would prefer more of all three kinds of adult daycare centers.

Perhaps we have a new use for Atlantic City’s abandoned casinos!

On Wednesday, November 18, 2015, SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci joined the Economists for Peace and Security's Symposium on Inequality, Austerity, Jobs, and Growth. The symposium featured a keynote address by Sarah Bloom Raskin from the Treasury Department.

Ghilarducci's presentation, "Wage and Retirement Time Inequality," was part of the first panel, "Jobs, Growth, Wages, and Inequality: What's the Agenda?," along with Allen Sinai (Decision Economics), Stephen Rose (Georgetown), and Heather Boushey (Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a New School Economics PhD).

The two other panels were on austerity and growth, and economics and global security, and will include Stephanie Kelton (Senate Budget Committee), Mike Konczal (Roosevelt Institute), and Josh Bivens (EPI), among many others.

Kim Clark interviewed ReLab Director Teresa Ghilarducci for Money Magazine on the state of retirement security. The article, "How to Solve America's Retirement Crisis," discusses how America’s current retirement system is failing, evidenced by declining coverage rates and traditional pension plans, as well as the high fees associated with 401(k)-type plans.

Fortunately, there are solutions, both for individual savers and through government policy. In the article, Ghilarducci gets into specifics, but for the long-term, recommends Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) to ensure retirement security across the board.

Economic growth can be a rising tide to lift all boats, so we are told. Advocates for cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age imply that economic growth will create jobs for older workers left to work longer. But the data debunks this myth: America’s fastest growing cities have the highest rates of unemployment for older workers. Tweet: America’s fastest growing cities have the highest rates of unemployment for older workers @tghilarducci #JobsReport

Unemployment for Older Workers in Growing CitiesNationally, this morning’s job report from the Department of Labor reported an October unemployment rate of 3.5% for older workers (aged 55-64). But in the 10 cities with the highest gross metropolitan product (GMP) growth in 2014, the numbers are worse, with 5.6% of older workers unable to find jobs, as compared to a metropolitan average of 4.0%.

Economic growth is not a quick solution to the difficulties faced by older workers who can’t afford to retire. Why? The factors that drive economic growth – a booming tech and finance sector, for example - don’t necessarily produce jobs for older workers. In fact, industry specialization - a key driver of growth - could explain why older workers struggle in booming cities. 

The 10 cities with the highest growth in output, over 5.5%, have a higher demand for technology jobs and significantly higher demand for finance, insurance and real estate jobs than the national average. For example, Austin, Texas, and San Jose, California, are home to expanding technology sectors, but recorded unemployment rates for older workers of over 12%. If high growth becomes dependent on jobs requiring knowledge of cutting-edge software at a time when firms are less willing to train workers, older workers will continue to be at a disadvantage in the labor market.

Instead of raising the retirement age, consigning older workers to an unfriendly labor market and increasing risk of old-age poverty, Americans need Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs), a reliable and effective method to save for retirement.

The AtlanticIn “How to Help the Middle Class Retire Comfortably at No Extra Cost,” SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci discusses the federal government’s main tool for encouraging retirement savings: tax expenditures. At $120 billion per year, tax breaks for retirement savings represent the second largest federal tax expenditure, just below health insurance and above mortgage interest and charitable giving.

Unfortunately, this money is not spent equitably or effectively. The majority of it accrues to the top 20% of earners, who are more likely to have employer-sponsored retirement savings accounts and have higher taxes to avoid. Recent research shows these tax breaks aren’t having their intended effect. High-earners who benefit from them would be saving anyway, and just shift their money to retirement accounts to lower their tax rates.

This money could be better spent. Instead of giving most of the $120 billion to wealthy households to encourage saving they would have done anyway, we should divvy it up equally to support everyone’s need to save for retirement. This would amount to about $800 per worker per year, which would give workers around $100,000 in savings by the time they retire.

While we still need a comprehensive solution to the retirement crisis in the form of Guaranteed Retirement Accounts, reforming inefficient and ineffective tax breaks for retirement savings is a good start. It represents a huge increase for the roughly half of American households who have no retirement savings whatsoever.

SCEPA co-hosted a conference with the Center for American Progress on How Tax Reform Can Address the Incoming Retirement Crisis. We discussed the erosion of American's retirement security and how the tax code can be used to encourage retirement savings. 

Retirement tax expenditures are the second largest federal tax expenditure, costing roughly $100 billion per year and growing. They are ineffective and regressive. Rather than encourage savings, they incentivize the well-off to shift their savings to tax-exempt accounts. The top 20% of earners reap 60% of the benefits of these expenditures, while the bottom 40% of earners see only 3%.

In light of the crisis in retirement savings--one quarter of workers aged 50-64 have no retirement savings whatsoever--we believe this money could be put to better use. If it were converted to a credit and divided evenly among the population, it could provide over $600 per year to Guaranteed Retirement Accounts. Add to that state retirement tax expenditures, and you can make an impact in the retirement security of low-income and middle-class Americans.