THE BLOG

The Retirement Crisis Is Real

09/30/2014 06:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2014

The retirement crisis is anything but imaginary. In a recent working paper, we find that only 44% of workers in the United States have access to a retirement plan at work. Except for workers with defined benefit plans, most middle class U.S. workers will not have adequate retirement income -- 55% of near-retirees will only have Social Security income at age 65.

Yet, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled "The Imaginary Retirement Income Crisis," Andrew Biggs and Sylvester Schieber make a number of startling and misleading claims.

First, they claim that the average U.S. retiree has an income equal to 92% of the average American income. Yet, the latest data from the American Community Survey show that the median income of U.S. retirees [1] is less than $16,000 compared to the median American worker's income of $31,000 - hardly 92%. [2] Retired workers received an average of $1,294 per month in Social Security benefits as of December 2013. That adds up to a paltry $15,528 per year - far from a princely sum to live on when one's medical bills and the expenses of old age are racking up.

Second, Biggs and Schieber assert that if Social Security benefits are increased, the country will likely experience lower employment and saving rates. Our new study shows the exact opposite. Social Security benefits actually boost the economy during recessions as beneficiaries maintain spending power in a downturn.

Third, they rightly use a reasonable measure of adequacy - retirees' ability to maintain living standards compares retirement income to work earnings. They refer to a Social Security Administration's Office of Retirement and Disability Policy (ORDP) report to note that in 2012 the income of the median 67-year-old exceeded his career average earnings. But it would be a mistake to make much of this statement. The median 67-year-old in the ORDP report is taken from a pool of individuals who continue to work and thus have higher earnings and higher years of education than the typical 67-year-old. Recent work by Gary Burtless shows that 67-year-old men with professional degrees are three times more likely to be working than men with a high school education or less. This ORDP pool from which the median in drawn also includes individuals who are claiming Social Security benefits. This helps explain why their incomes appear higher than their career averages.

Fourth, Biggs and Schieber claim that the typical Gen-X (born between 1966 and 1975) household will have higher replacement rates than Depression-era birth cohorts. This claim is misleading because it uses an unorthodox measure of replacement rates. The ORDP report actually shows that the more common measure, wage-adjusted replacement rates, has deteriorated over time. Depression and WWII-era birth cohorts have replacement rates of 95% and 98%, while future retirees (born between 1966 and 1975) will have projected replacement rates of 84%.

Finally, survey after survey shows that retirement security is among the top worry for Americans. If things were as rosy as Mr. Biggs and Mr. Schieber state, why is everyone so afraid?

It is very interesting that Biggs and Schieber decide to use the cited ORDP report to claim that the retirement crisis is imaginary. One of the major findings of this report is that gains in retirement income are largely going to higher socioeconomic groups (whites, the college educated, high earners and workers with strong labor force attachments). In the age of inequality, the retirement crisis is real.

People need more savings for retirement. Mandatory, protected and regulated individual accounts in addition to a robust Social Security system will ensure that all Americans have an adequate retirement income and can choose to work or not in their old age.

End Notes:

[1] U.S. retirees are defined as Americans who are older than 60, are out of the labor force and had no income from earnings.

[2] The median worker is defined from a sample of Americans 60 years of age or younger, who were in the labor force.