On September 30, 2014, PBS Frontline won an Emmy Award for their documentary 'The Retirement Gamble,' that aired on April 23, 2014. The piece investigates the financialization of retirement savings via 401(k)-type accounts and the resulting erosion of an individual's ability to retire.

SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci and Demos Senior Policy Analyst Robert Hiltonsmith, a New School alumni, were interviewed on their work documenting the structural failure of the 401(k) and its corresponding high fees. Ghilarducci states, "The 401(k) is one of the only products that Americans buy that they don't know the price of it. It's also one of the products that Americans buy that they don't even know it's quality."

SCEPA's report 'How 401(k) Plans Make Recessions Worse' describes how the structural flaws of 401(k)-type retirement plans exacerbate recessions in comparison to annuity-backed retirement accounts. The latter, including definied benefit plans and Social Security, serve as automatic stabilizers because they stabilize the economy during both recessions and expansions.

This article appeared on Huffington Post's Money blog on September 30, 2014, and as a letter to the editor under the Wall Street Journal's headline, "There Really is a Huge Retirement Crisis Developing."

The Retirement Crisis is Real

The retirement crisis is anything but imaginary. In a recent working paper, we find that only 44% of workers in the United States have access to a retirement plan at work. Except for workers with defined benefit plans, most middle class U.S. workers will not have adequate retirement income - 55% of near-retirees will only have Social Security income at age 65.

Yet, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, "The Imaginary Retirement Income Crisis," Andrew Biggs and Sylvester Schieber make a number of startling and misleading claims.

Not Enough Retirement Income

First, they claim that the average U.S. retiree has an income equal to 92% of the average American income. Yet, the latest data from the American Community Survey show that the median income of U.S. retirees1 is less than $16,000 compared to the median American worker's income of $31,000 – hardly 92%.2 Retired workers received an average of $1,294 per month in Social Security benefits as of December 2013. That adds up to a paltry $15,528 per year – far from a princely sum to live on when one's medical bills and the expenses of old age are racking up.

Social Security Supports a Stabile Economy

Second, Biggs and Schieber assert that if Social Security benefits are increased, the country will likely experience lower employment and saving rates. Our new study shows the exact opposite. Social Security benefits actually boost the economy during recessions as beneficiaries maintain spending power in a downturn.

Downward Mobility in Retirement

Third, Biggs and Schieber rightly use a reasonable measure of adequacy - retirees' ability to maintain living standards, which compares retirement income to work earnings. They refer to a Social Security Administration's Office of Retirement and Disability Policy (ORDP) report to note that in 2012 the income of the median 67-year-old exceeded his career average earnings. But it would be a mistake to make much of this statement. The median 67-year-old in the ORDP report is taken from a pool of individuals who continue to work and thus have higher earnings and higher years of education than the typical 67-year-old. Recent work by Gary Burtless shows that 67-year-old men with professional degrees are three times more likely to be working than men with a high school education or less. This ORDP pool from which the median is drawn also includes individuals who are claiming Social Security benefits. This helps explain why their incomes appear higher than their career averages.

Less Retirement Income for Gen-Xers

Fourth, Biggs and Schieber claim that the typical Gen-X (born between 1966 and 1975) household will have higher replacement rates than Depression-era birth cohorts. This claim is misleading because it uses an unorthodox measure of replacement rates. The ORDP report actually shows that the more common measure, wage-adjusted replacement rates, has deteriorated over time. Depression and WWII-era birth cohorts have replacement rates of 95% and 98%, while future retirees (born between 1966 and 1975) will have projected replacement rates of 84%.

Finally, survey after survey shows that retirement security is among the top worry for Americans. If things were as rosy as Mr. Biggs and Mr. Schieber state, why is everyone so afraid?

It is very interesting that Biggs and Schieber decide to use the cited ORDP report to claim that the retirement crisis is imaginary. One of the major findings of this report is that gains in retirement income are largely going to higher socioeconomic groups (whites, the college educated, high earners, and workers with strong labor force attachments). In the age of inequality, the retirement crisis is real.

People need more savings for retirement. Mandatory, protected, and regulated individual accounts in addition to a robust Social Security system will ensure that all Americans have an adequate retirement income and can choose to work or not in their old age.

End Notes:
1U.S. retirees are defined as Americans who are older than 60, are out of the labor force, and had no income from earnings.
2The median worker is defined from a sample of Americans 60 years of age or younger, who were in the labor force.

Thomas Piketty's best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, serves as a watershed example of the dual contradictions of capitalism and proves that the last century was characterized by a sharp divergence between social classes. He warns that the main driver of inequality—the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth—threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values.

Much like Piketty's work, economists at The New School for Social Research strive to analyze the dynamics of capitalism using historical and empirical analysis and, through SCEPA, its policy implications. Following Piketty's remarks, New School Professor Anwar Shaikh and New School PhD Heather Boushey presented their own comments as well as join in a panel discussion to answer the question, where do we go from here?

Participants:

Thomas Piketty, Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics

Anwar Shaikh, Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research

Heather Boushey, Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center
for Equitable Growth

 

posterOn Wednesday, September 9th, I will present King's College's annual Labor Day Lecture 4 p.m. in the Burke Auditorium. Titled, "Bread, Roses and Rest: Security Meaningful Retirement for All," I will discuss the need for retirement reform to ensure that all Americans are afforded the opportunity for a dignified retirement. The event is co-sponsored by the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's Collge and Wilkes-Barre's Peace and Justice Center.

You can read more about the event in Northern Pennsylvania's Times Leader's article, "Clinton Appointee to Speak on Retirement Policy at King's."

On June 23, 2014, SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci appeared on MSNBC's UP with Steve Kornacki along with Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress and Paul Sonn with the National Employment Law Project to discuss the bigger economic picture that necessitates raising the minimum wage. The panel discussed the facts that productivity gains have far eclipsed wage gains, that the federal minimum wage has been stagnant since 2009, and that the average hourly pay has declined over the past 12 months. The panel overwhelming agreed the best way to address these structural economic issues is through increased collective bargaining. A recent working paper by Teresa Ghilarducci and Joelle Saad-Lessler find two factors that significantly impact the likelihood of obtaining employer-offered benefits - time spent unemployed and union status. Therefore, attempts to raise wages must address the decline in workers' bargaining power and change the norms relating to benefits and wage provision. The City of Seattle has taken the largest step in addressing the wage gap by elevating their minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Massachusetts offers the highest state level minimum wage at $11 an hour. Teresa Ghilarducci ended the MSNBC panel with a summary of the advantages of unionization for both workers and employers.

The newly published 'Retirement Readiness in New York City: Trends in Plan Sponsorship, Participation and Income Security' report by Joelle Saad-lessler, Kate Bahn and I documents research, conducted at the request of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, reveals a 17% drop (from 49% to 41%) between 2001 and 2011 in the percentage of New York City workers participating in a retirement plan at work. Only 12% of New Yorkers had a defined benefit (DB) plan. The DB plan guarantees a pension return, whereas defined contribution (DC) plans i.e. 401(k)/IRA do not. As a result, DB plans maintained an average income replacement rate of 90% versus the DC plan, which on average only replaced 48% of workers' salaries throughout retirement. The consequences of declining employer-sponsored plans and low replacement rates threaten workers' standard of living in retirement and could increase poverty levels among the city's older residents. This research makes clear that under the current system of retirement savings, the only workers protected from a significant reduction in their living standards at retirement are the dwindling number of workers with traditional DB plans.

 

Currently, 59% of New Yorkers do have access to a retirement plan. Of those who do have a plan—either a defined contribution or a defined benefit plan—the majority have less than $30,000 for their retirement.

With an average annual benefit of only $15,528, Social Security is quickly becoming an inadequate income replacement at retirement. Without a supplemental income, many individuals will spend the later years of their lives in poverty, adding expenses to constrained working families, and requiring support from government at all levels.

The New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO joined SCEPA on Tuesday, June 17th, for a conference on retirement security with New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer and New York State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli. The conference addressed both problems and solutions to New York City’s retirement security crisis. At the conference, Scott Stringer announced the creation of an advisory panel to examine ways to provide retirement security for all New Yorkers.  

Conference Materials:
Retirement Readiness in New York City
Account Balances by Income: Even the Highest Earners Don't Have Enough
The Future of Elderly Poverty in America
What Would it Cost to Eliminate Extreme Elderly Poverty in New York City?
Pension Replacement and Downward Mobility
Confronting NYC's Retirement Crisis
John Adler's Presentation
James Parrott Presentation