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US / The Middle Class Retirement Crisis

Retirement security for those currently or recently in the middle class is no sure thing. 49% of the private work force has neither defined benefit (traditional pensions) or defined contribution (401(k)) retirement plans, while public sector pensions are coming under increasing attack. The United States has the highest elder poverty rate, 25% (measured as 50% of median income), of any industrialized nation bigger than Ireland. An estimated $6.6 trillion shortfall in retirement savings shows how the shift from traditional pensions to 401(k) plans has been totally inadequate to meet people’s future needs.

Yet what passes for wisdom among the Very Serious People (VSP) is that we need to make a stealth cut to Social Security via a less generous inflation adjustment, while Republican plans for Medicare would shift an astounding $34 trillion in medical costs on to seniors whose income would be falling in real terms. This is a recipe for disaster.

So what do we really need to do now? Several different proposals are currently in the mix, all of which would address the income shortfall to varying degrees.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a report in July 2012, “The Retirement Crisis and a Plan to Solve It.” It proposes a fairly small increase to Social Security benefits (about $60 monthly to the lowest earners) and replaces the current inflation factor (CPI-Urban wage earners) not with the chintzy “chained CPI” the VSP want, but with the more generous CPI-Elderly, which recognizes that seniors consume a larger share of rapidly rising cost products, most obviously health care. The other innovation in the Harkin plan is the introduction of “USA” (Universal, Secure, and Adaptable) retirement funds which would require both employer and employee contributions, with special tax credits for low-income workers. These funds would provide what might be called a “semi-defined benefit” that could be adjusted downward if there were a prolonged stock market slump, but otherwise would provide a predictable level of benefit to its recipients.

As pension expert Jane White contends, this proposal is vague when it is not simply inadequate. She argues for a plan like the Australian “Superannuation” plan, where employers are required to put in 9% of the worker’s income. Her proposal for the U.S. would be a 9% contribution for large companies and 6% for small firms. It would be portable among companies, and employees would immediately own their employer’s contribution (vesting), in contrast to the current situation where that can take years. She argues that the big problem with U.S. pensions isn’t that not enough people have 401(k)’s (though with 49% of private workers not having one, I’m not sure I’m persuaded), but that the employer contribution is so small. By contrast, Harkin’s USA plan does not specify a level of employer contributions, which is definitely a drawback when the savings shortfall is so severe.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor from

Angry Bear

via Solutions to the Middle Class Retirement Crisis | Angry Bear – Financial and Economic Commentary.

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