Makin' Money

Retirement at risk

Chris Farrell Aug 31, 2011

Saving for retirement is hard, especially for younger workers just starting out on their careers and their low-income peers. Wages are stagnant and take-home pay isn’t going to rise after adjusting for inflation, not with the economy running at near stall-speed and the government’s broadest measure of unemployment-and-underemployment at 16.1%.

It’s easy to criticize people for not saving enough. And it’s true that people have to save more. Still, it’s remarkable that people have managed to save as much as they have for everything from retirement to emergency savings considering the state of the economy and job market.

It’s also under-appreciated how much a major shift in the retirement savings market has hurt the retirement prospects of lower income workers. the deck is stacked against them.

Companies moved away from the traditional defined benefit pension plan for the 401(k), a defined contribution savings plan. (The public sector is now under pressure to make a comparable shift.) According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI), the percentage of private-sector workers participating in a defined benefit plan fell from 38% in 1979 to 15% in 2008.

In essence, with a defined benefit plan the employer bears all the investment risk and commits to a fixed payout of money, typically based on a salary and years-of-service formula. In sharp contrast, with the 401(k) employee’s bear all the risk, deciding how much to invest and where to invest it.

The result: More workers are at risk of a lower standard of living in retirement or even running out of money. The EBRI study says that baby boomer and generation-x households with a defined benefit pension plan at retirement age are almost 12 percentage points less likely to be “at risk” of running short of money for basic needs and uninsured health costs in retirement. The results were worse for low-income households.

Some 85% percent of households without a defined benefit plan in the lowest one-third when ranked by preretirement income were classified as “at risk.” Moreover, 41 percent of those in the lowest preretirement income quartile are predicted to run short of money within 10 years of retirement.

This isn’t good. The shortfall also isn’t the fault of workers and their families. It’s the result of bad public policy.

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