Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security

November 2011
EBRI Issue Brief #364
Paperback, 24 pp.
PDF, 981 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2011

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Executive Summary

TAX PROPOSALS: Currently, the combination of worker and employer contributions in a defined contribution plan is capped by the federal tax code at the lesser of $49,000 per year or 100 percent of a worker’s compensation (participants over age 50 can make additional “catch-up” contributions). As part of the effort to lower the federal deficit and reduce federal “tax expenditures,” two major reform proposals have surfaced that would change current tax policy toward retirement savings:

• A plan that would end the existing tax deductions for 401(k) contributions and replace them with a flat-rate refundable credit that serves as a matching contribution into a retirement savings account.

• The so-called “20/20 cap,” included by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in their December 2010 report, “The Moment of Truth,” which would limit the sum of employer and worker annual contributions to the lower of $20,000 or 20 percent of income, the so-called “20/20 cap.”

IMPACT OF PERMANENTLY MODIFYING THE EXCLUSION OF EMPLOYEE CONTRIBUTIONS FOR RETIREMENT SAVINGS PLANS FROM TAXABLE INCOME: If the current exclusion of worker contributions for retirement savings plans were ended in 2012 and the total match remains constant, the average reductions in 401(k) accounts at Social Security normal retirement age would range from a low of 11.2 percent for workers currently ages 26?35 in the highest-income groups, to a high of 24.2 percent for workers in that age range in the lowest-income group.

IMPACT OF “20/20 CAP”: Earlier EBRI analysis of enacting the 20/20 cap starting in 2012 showed it would, as expected, most affect those with high income. However, EBRI also found the cap would cause a significant reduction in retirement savings by the lowest-income workers as well, and younger cohorts would experience larger reductions given their increased exposure to the proposal.

IMPORTANCE OF EMPLOYER-SPONSORED RETIREMENT PLANS AND AUTO-ENROLLMENT: A key factor in future retirement income security is whether a worker has access to a retirement plan at work. EBRI has found that voluntary enrollment in 401(k) plans under the current set of tax incentives has the potential to generate a sum that, when combined with Social Security benefits, would replace a sizeable portion of a worker’s preretirement income, and that auto-enrollment could produce even larger retirement accumulations.

POTENTIAL INCREASE OF AMERICANS FACING INADEQUATE RETIREMENT INCOME: The potential increase of at-risk percentages resulting from (1) employer modifications to existing plans, and (2) a substantial portion of low-income households decreasing or eliminating future contributions to savings plans as a reaction to the proposed elimination of the exclusion of employee contributions for retirement savings plans from taxable income, needs to be analyzed carefully when considering the overall impact of proposals to change existing tax incentives for retirement savings.