Let’s put a retirement savings plan in every workplace

Critics of the nation’s retirement system regularly complain that the system is in crisis. Too many private companies fail to offer their employees a retirement plan. Many employees who are covered by a plan fail to make contributions to it. Those who do make contributions may contribute too little or invest their savings unwisely. The end result: Many of us will reach retirement age with miniscule pensions or too little savings to enjoy a comfortable old age.

The argument that our retirement system has gaping holes is well founded. The notion that it faces an imminent “crisis” is nonsense. If the system currently faces a crisis, it has faced the same one for the past 40 years. While elderly Americans have seen their incomes and living standards improve in recent decades, the median working-age family has experienced little improvement in its real income. Nonelderly families that depend solely on the earnings of breadwinners who have below-average schooling saw a drop in their incomes.

In recent research with Brookings colleagues, I tracked the real incomes of families headed by aged and nonaged Americans. In the 34 years ending in 2012, the median real income of working-age families climbed a little more than 2 percent (in other words, by less than one-tenth of a percentage point per year). The median real income of families headed by someone past 62 increased a little more than 40 percent. The numbers suggest our retirement system is doing a decent job improving the living standards of the aged. Unfortunately, the labor market is doing a much worse job boosting the living standards of middle-class wage earners.

Critics of the retirement system might worry that it succeeds in protecting the incomes of the middle class elderly but fails to protect the incomes of the poor — a concern not supported by the evidence. Income inequality has gone up among the elderly as it has among the nonelderly. But older low-income Americans have fared much better than low-income working-age adults. In the late 1950s, by far the highest poverty rate of any age group was that for people over 65. Even in the late 1980s, the elderly had a higher poverty rate than adults between 18-64. Since the middle of the last decade, however, the elderly have had the lowest poverty rate of any age group.

People who warn us of a retirement “crisis” are nonetheless correct in pointing to sizeable holes in the current system. Too few companies, especially small ones, offer their workers a retirement plan. According to recent government estimates, only about half of workers in companies with fewer than 100 employees are offered a retirement plan. Offer rates are higher in bigger companies and in government agencies, but about 30 percent of all employees are not offered any pension or retirement savings plan where they work. When retirement plans are offered, however, workers are very likely to participate in them — even if they must make a voluntary contribution out of their pretax wages.

What is crucial for a retirement savings plan’s success is automatic payroll withholding. Dollars that are withheld from workers’ paychecks are harder for workers to spend on something other than retirement savings. A crucial improvement in our current system would be to require all employers to establish automatic payroll withholding for voluntary retirement savings in an IRA (individual retirement account). Companies that already offer a qualified pension or retirement savings plan should be exempt from any extra obligation.

The harshest critics of the current retirement system would go much further than this. Many want to bring back traditional retirement plans that guaranteed workers a specific monthly pension linked to their job tenure, final pay, and age at retirement. The advantages of such a plan for workers are that their employer is typically responsible for funding the plan and for ensuring that pensions are paid, regardless of the ups and downs of financial markets. A big disadvantage is that the promised benefits are not worth much if the worker’s career with a company is cut short, either because of a layoff or quitting.

People who are nostalgic for old-fashioned pensions may be right that workers would prefer to be covered by such a plan, despite their disadvantages for short-tenure workers. I’m less persuaded that traditional pensions offer better protection to typical workers than modern 401(k)-type plans. Regardless of the pros and cons of the two kinds of plan, it is wildly unrealistic to think small employers or new employers will want to take on the risks and administrative burdens connected with an old-fashioned pension plan.

All U.S. workers are covered by a traditional, defined-benefit pension: it’s called Social Security. It has worked well over the past four decades in protecting and even lifting the incomes of the retired elderly. It may not work as well in the future if benefits are cut substantially to keep the program solvent. Boosting workplace retirement savings is a sensible way to insure future retirees will have adequate incomes, even if Social Security benefits have to be trimmed. An essential first step to boosting savings is to require companies to put a retirement savings plan in every workplace.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Markets.