TPC Discussion Paper No. 9

Private Pensions: Issues and Options

Please visit the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center website to view the full paper.

This paper provides an overview of the U.S. system of pensions and tax-preferred saving, examines the effects of current policies, and evaluates proposals for reform. In light of lengthening life spans, earlier retirement, and projected financial shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, the financial status of the elderly in the future will depend heavily on private saving for retirement. The central goal of the private pension system should be to encourage or provide adequate and secure retirement income in a cost-efficient and equitable manner.

The present system falls short of these goals. Pensions currently cost the U.S. Treasury almost $200 billion per year. Pension benefits are skewed toward more affluent households who would be more likely to be saving adequately for retirement even without pensions, and who disproportionately use pensions to divert other saving (rather than to raise their overall level of saving). Pension benefits are meager among lower- and middle-income households who more often are not saving adequately for retirement, but for whom pensions do serve effectively to raise retirement wealth. Pension rules often allocate financial risks to workers, the group least well equipped to handle these issues. Pension rules are unduly complex.

Reforms that raise contribution limits even further are unlikely to be helpful in promoting the goals noted above. Rather, pension reforms should focus on expanding benefits for lower- and middle-income households, improving incentives and opportunities to diversify investments, increasing financial education, improving the structure and rules regarding cash balance plans, and simplifying and strengthening non-discrimination rules.