Insights Blog

Inadequate Retirement Savings for Workers Nearing Retirement

August 21, 2017

Due to lack of coverage and a systemic reliance on defined contribution plans, workers do not have enough saved for retirement.

ReLab’s policy note, Inadequate Retirement Savings for Workers Nearing Retirement, documents that the median retirement savings account balance for those nearing retirement is $15,000. 

Employer-sponsored retirement plans are intended to bridge the gap between Social Security and targeted retirement income. Unfortunately, in 2014, 35% of those nearing retirement did not have access to retirement plan, a share that has increased over the last 30 years.

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In the 1980’s, 401(k) plans - or defined contribution (DC) plans - became widespread. For most workers in the private sector, they replaced rather than supplemented traditional pension plans, or defined benefit (DB) plans.  In theory, DC plans could enable participants to accumulate adequate wealth by the time they retire. But in practice, account balances fall short, reflecting spotty eligibility histories, non-participation, inadequate contributions and employer matches, pre-retirement withdrawals, high fees, and subpar investment returns. These faults are inherent to the DC system and cannot be fixed by regulation.

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These low savings balances will not be enough to allow retirees to maintain their standard of living, a fact that is true at all income levels. 

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The combined effects of cuts to Social Security benefits and the consequences of a broken DC-centric savings system has created a retirement crisis. Few workers without workplace retirement plans save for retirement. Without significant reform to the retirement system, many workers who reach retirement age will be forced to choose between working longer and suffering severe drops in their living standards in retirement. But many older workers cannot work longer due to physical or mental impairment, and those that are capable of working face a labor market unfriendly to older workers.

Rather than worsening the retirement crisis by cutting Social Security benefits, policymakers should both strengthen Social Security and expand retirement plan coverage. Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) are individual accounts requiring employers and employees to contribute with a fair and effective refundable tax credit provided by the government. GRAs provide a safe, effective vehicle for workers to accumulate personal retirement savings over their working lives.