In the past, many workers could rely on so-called defined benefit pensions provided by their employers, which promised retirement payments based on a worker’s salary and years of service. In the private sector, those once common pensions have all but disappeared. To a large extent, they have been replaced by defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s.
The value of the newer brand of pensions depends largely on how much workers have paid into them and how successfully the investments in the accounts perform. The shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans essentially has transferred the burdens and risks associated with providing retirement savings from employers to workers.
The graph above shows this sea change in private sector pensions. Among workers with some form of retirement plan, the share with only a defined benefit pension declined from 62 percent in 1979 to 7 percent in 2008. Sixty seven percent of workers with a retirement plan in 2008 had only a 401(k)-type defined contribution plan.
The decline of defined benefit plans has reduced the retirement security of a large share of the workforce, making them more reliant on highly unpredictable and volatile savings plans. In addition, middle- and lower-income workers, who are less likely to participate in defined contributions plans, are now less likely to have any form of pension support at all.
By Alex Stone, Communications Manager, Economic Opportunity Institute
At NASI’s 2011 annual conference, the session “Should We Adopt the Social Security Recommendations of the Fiscal Commission Co-Chairs?” demonstrated the complexity of the Social Security reform debate.
Charles Blahous, a Social Security trustee, argued in favor of adopting the Fiscal Commission proposals, which he characterized as a “reasonable compromise” because it utilizes ideas from both sides of the aisle.
Andy Stern, a member of the Fiscal Commission, ultimately voted against the co-chairs’ proposal. He emphasized that while a crisis exists, it is of middle class retirement security in general – not Social Security – due to shrinking personal savings, fewer pension plans, and the erosion of family-wage jobs.
Janice Gregory, NASI President, then pointed out major flaws in the Fiscal Commission’s proposal, arguing that it goes too far in the direction of benefit reduction, and unfairly characterizes Social Security as contributing to the deficit. Gregory also expressed concern that the proposal’s dramatic changes are unwarranted because Social Security shows stable long-term cost projections and a large trust fund.
Despite disagreeing on the proposal, the panelists were able to find common ground on the value of maintaining Social Security’s benefit-payment link, and its importance to lower- and middle-income Americans. These two points are critical measures of success for the Social Security program, but weren’t given equal value in the Fiscal Commission’s final proposal.
Strengthening Social Security was never the main charge of the aptly-named Fiscal Commission. Rather, the foremost concern of its co-chairmen was to rein in the deficit, and their proposal reflects that ultimate goal. While their proposal maintained the benefit-payment linkage, they recommended increasing the retirement age for future generations and adopting a new COLA formula that would lower benefits.
Further, the Fiscal Commission did a disservice to Social Security by taking it up as a deficit-reduction measure. This reinforces the false notion that Social Security contributes to the deficit and needs ‘saving.’ In fact, the Social Security Trustees project that in 2037, the trust fund will be expended – at which point payroll taxes would cover 78% of benefits. Lifting the payroll cap now, from its current $106,800, is an easy solution to that problem. It would maintain the benefit-payment link for nearly every American worker, and allow Social Security to expand benefits to lower- and middle-class recipients.
The real charge of the Fiscal Commission – deficit reduction – is an important one, but a robust middle class must exist to drive innovation and fuel our economy. And if deficit reduction were truly a top priority of our elected officials, it’s unlikely that the recent tax cut extension would have been approved.
Economic and social policies of the past century have fueled the growth of the American middle class. A strong middle-class will help to pull us out of this, and future, economic slumps. But in order to do so, families must be able to spend their money on higher education, saving for retirement and purchasing a home – not supporting their elderly parents and paying for costly medical care. Social Security is not a retirement program, nor a replacement for one. It’s a poverty prevention program, and one of the most successful in American history.
In the end, the debate over Social Security is a debate over how we will measure success in America. Will it be with basic accounting principles, stock values, and long-term economic projections? Or will it be a more refined approach – such as triple bottom line accounting – which determines success using both economic and social measures of good? Our collective success is inextricably linked to Social Security. Improving benefits now is crucial, both for the nation’s short-term economic recovery, and for the long-term economic security of our families and communities.
Click here to view a video of the session, “Should We Adopt the Social Security Recommendations of the Fiscal Commission Co-Chairs.
Today more than 70 million Americans work in private sector firms. Of that number, more than 10 million work in firms with fewer than 100 employees. Generally, the smaller the firm size, the less likely the firm will offer a defined benefit or defined contribution retirement plan to workers. Thus, Social Security benefits are especially important to the retirement income of workers in smaller firms.
According to the Congressional Research Service, only 29.3% of firms with fewer than 25 employees offered retirement plans, compared with 73.5% of firms with more than 100 employees. For firms with 25 to 99 employees, 53.7% of those firms offered retirement plans. Thus, the availability of retirement plans is more limited in smaller firms. In fact, the number of firms with fewer than 99 employees offering plans has declined during the past decade.
It’s tougher for women to achieve a secure retirement. Women generally earn less than men — and live longer. But there are steps you can take to prepare for retirement, whether you’ve just started working or are nearing retirement age.
There is no reason to be intimidated by retirement planning. The webinars, part of the National Women’s Law Center’s Citi Education Series on Family Economic Security, will give you some tips and strategies to obtain peace of mind.
What Women Need to Know About Social Security 1:00 p.m. EDT, Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Find out more about the benefits Social Security can provide, including before retirement, and about how your decisions (and your spouse’s, if you are married) about when to claim benefits can affect your retirement income.
What Women Need to Know About Pensions and Savings 1:00 p.m. EDT, Thursday, September 16, 2010
Find out more about ways you can save for retirement and manage your savings to improve your retirement security