I have been working on new research documenting that, despite the growing tax breaks and intensive advertising campaigns for 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts, Americans nearing retirement are more likely than previously expected to experience downward mobility in their golden years. Specifically, people ages 50 to 64 - 58 million in 2010 - will likely not have enough retirement assets to maintain their standard of living when they reach their mid-sixties.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), SCEPA's new Fact Sheet, Near Retirees' Defined Contribution Retirement Account Balances, is the first to provide a breakdown of defined contribution (DC) retirement account balances by income.

SCEPA income chart

Three quarters of near retirees (ages 50 to 64) have annual incomes below $52,201, with an average total retirement account balance of $26,395 . When stretched out into an annuity over an average retirement lifetime, this sum does not provide a significant addition to a monthly Social Security benefit (see Table 1.) Further, the median value of retirement account balances for half of near retirees is zero, meaning that over half of this group has no retirement savings.

Individuals with incomes over $52,201 per year have more in their retirement accounts, but their balances are not high. Their average retirement account balance for this income group is $105,012. Because only a few people have very high balances, the median balance is much lower; 50 percent of people ages 50-64 in the top 25 percent of the income distribution have retirement account balances of only $52,000.

The numbers are lower than previous estimates based on the data set. Previous estimates rely on the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), which aims to measure the net assets of U.S. families by over-sampling people likely to be wealthy to provide more precise estimates of wealth. This includes assets that only the wealthy own, such as municipal bonds and business assets. In contrast, the SIPP allows researchers to conduct analyses of government programs for the low-income population, over-sampling the low-income population. Since the two data sets focus on different groups of people, SIPP estimates of retirement wealth differ from estimates based on SCF data and more accurately represent the American population.