401(k) Retirement Plans Amplify Income Inequality and Racial Disparities

Isaiah J. Poole

It’s bad enough that the move toward individual retirement plans has been a massive failure when it comes to providing average working Americans retirement security. But now there’s research that shows that our dependence on individual retirement plans adds fuel to the fire of racial and class inequities in ways that the pension plans that used to be common did not.

The Economic Policy Institute presented that research Thursday in its “State of American Retirement” report. The report underscores the need to keep up the fight for strengthening Social Security and increasing its benefits, rather than cutting them.

“We’re moving toward a retirement system that magnifies inequality,” said Monique Morrissey, the EPI economist who wrote the report. That happened, she said, as the percentage of workers who received a pension (a “defined benefit plan”) declined from 35 percent of private-sector workers in the early 1990s to less than 20 percent today. (In the early 1980s, the percentage of private-sector workers in large companies that had a pension exceeded 80 percent.)

Pension plans were surprisingly egalitarian, Morrissey said, in the sense that once you got a job with a pension, what you received in retirement was affected only by your wages and years with the company. With “defined contribution plans” – like 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) – differences widen by race and class.

According to the report, among the people in the top 20 percent of income, nine out of 10 have retirement account savings; among those in the bottom 20 percent, it’s worse than totally flipped; fewer than one in 10 have any retirement account at all. The workers at the top fifth of the income scale accounted for 63 percent of total income, but have 74 percent of the total stashed in personal retirement accounts.

Only 41 percent of black families and 26 percent of Hispanic families had retirement account savings in 2013; 61 percent of white households do. The average retirement account among African-American and Hispanic workers contains about $22,000; for whites, the average account contains $73,000. On top of that, research shows that African Americans are disproportionately in jobs where retirement plans are simply not offered. “401(k)s have really been a disaster for African Americans,” Morrissey said.

In fact, for all ordinary workers, “401(k)s were never designed to be a primary retirement plan,” Morrissey said. Yet they filled that role at the same time President Ronald Reagan and Congress cut a deal to improve the solvency of Social Security that pushed back the retirement age over time from 65 to 67 – and at the same time worker wages stopped keeping pace with productivity and with income gains for corporate executives.

The result is that today fewer Americans than ever will have a financially secure retirement. The Government Accountability Office in 2014 found that half of all households age 55 and older have no retirement savings at all; close to 30 percent also do not have a pension to rely on, either. Of those who do have a 401(k) or IRA-type plan who were between the ages of 55 and 64, their retirement savings would yield a monthly check upon retirement of about $310 a month.

Morrissey said these realities reinforce the case for expanding Social Security benefits. “That’s the number one thing we need to be doing,” she said. (To support the call for strengthening Social Security benefits, add your name to this petition.)

She added that while waiting for action at the federal level, states can play a role. For example, the California Secure Choice Retirement Plan would opt workers into making regular contributions to a state-managed plan if they did not have a retirement plan available in their job. The state plan would invest in a balanced portfolio of assets that would not be driven by the kinds of management fee incentives that often drive retirement plan investments.

Get updates in your inbox