In “How to Help the Middle Class Retire Comfortably at No Extra Cost,” I delve into 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.
I think 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.