Understanding Retirement Policies: A Primer

Most of the significant policy issues associated with retirements and pensions in the United States today hinge on the relative responsibilities of Government, employers and employees in providing for the well-being of workers and their families after they retire. These three interconnected sources of retirement income are all governed by Federal legislation and statutes, each of which offers its own issues, opportunities and challenges. I’ll briefly review each of the three and provide an overview of the policy considerations involved with each.

Government Funded Programs: The Federal Government provides social insurance programs under the Social Security Act of 1935, as amended, and as implemented in Title 42, Chapter 7, of the U.S. Code. These programs originated in the Great Depression, when over 50% of elderly, retired people in the United States lived in poverty.

Title 42, Chapter 7 governs a variety of social insurance programs (including Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, etc.) , though when we use the term “Social Security” we are generally referring only to the Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program. OASDI provides monthly benefits to retirees, dependants, widows, spouses, divorced spouses and disabled workers. In the United States today, workers contribute via mandatory payroll deductions under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), which are then matched by their employers.

These funds are held in, and dispersed from, the Social Security Trust Fund. OASDI is a “pay as you go” program, meaning that today’s workers pay for today’s retirees, not for their own future retirements. The problem with this approach in the United States today is obviously a demographic one: the ratio of current workers to retirees is decreasing rapidly as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age, and people are living longer as birth rates decline. By most forecasts, if nothing changes, the Social Security Trust Fund will run dry sometime between 2030 and 2040.

None of the policy options available to remedy this situation are likely be popular among voters (e.g. suspend the program, allow private employee-directed investments, reduce benefits, increase minimum retirement age, raise Social Security taxes, borrow to pay OASDI benefits, make riskier investments with the trust fund in the hopes of increasing investment gains, etc.), hence the decisions tend to just keep getting deferred. This is one of the most profound socioeconomic issues facing our country today, especially as other entitlement programs grow and expand.

Employer Funded Programs: The traditional employer funded pension was a defined-benefit plan, in which employees, in exchange for set periods of employment, were granted certain payments and benefits for the remainder of their lives after they left the work force.

Defined-benefit plans are rapidly dying out everywhere except for in Government and larger, older, more unionized companies and corporations. They are being replaced with defined-contribution plans, like 401(k)s, where employers, employees or both make contributions that go into individuals’ retirement accounts.

The most important piece of legislation governing employer or employee funded programs is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), as amended. ERISA was designed to protect the interests of pension plan participants by requiring disclosure of information concerning plans and by establishing standards of conduct for plan administrators.

ERISA also established the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), an independent Government agency designed to provide uninterrupted pension benefits in cases where employers can no longer meet their obligations to their retired employees. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 sought to strengthen the PBGC and ERISA in general by eliminating loopholes and penalizing companies that under-fund their pension programs.

Defined-benefit plans are also typically “pay as you go” type arrangements, and they have run against the same sorts of demographic pressures that assail Social Security. From a government policy standpoint, lawmakers must balance provisions that protect employees with realistic assessments of what businesses can bear; if the government mandates pension provisions that bankrupt businesses and cause all of their employees to lose their jobs before they get a chance to retire, has the net utility to society been increased?

Employee Funded Programs: Given the resource pressures noted above, the Government and businesses have a vested interest in encouraging employees to help fund their own retirements.

In addition to ERISA, the Internal Revenue Codes of 1954 and 1986, as amended, are the primary laws influencing employee funded programs, as they provide tax incentives for employees to set aside funding for their retirement; “401(k),” for example, refers to a chapter in the tax code.

Employees may contribute to defined-benefit plans such as 401(k)s that are sponsored by employers, or they may contribute to individual retirement accounts (IRAs); there are several different types of IRAs (Roth, Traditional, SEP, Simple, etc.) that have different tax provisions associated with them.

As originally constituted, IRAs were essentially cash vehicles, but the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 made it easier to use other types of assets to fund retirement accounts.

From a policy-making standpoint, lawmakers must balance a desire to have employees fund their own retirements with a realization that the tax incentives being offered to encourage such investment also results in reduced tax revenues to the federal government; it would be simple to write tax law that would encourage employees to dramatically increase their contributions, but that would dramatically increase the budget deficit by lowering revenues.

Recommended Further Reading:

  • The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America’s Economic Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, MIT Press, 2005.
  • Coming Up Short: The Challenge of 401(K) Plans, by Annika Sunden and Alicia Haydock Munnell, Brookings Institution Press, 2004.
  • Fundamentals of Private Pensions (Eighth Edition), by Dan McGill, et al., Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • The Economics of an Aging Society, by Robert L. Clark, et al., Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
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