Friday, September 05, 2014

Under Covered

Have you heard this one? “Only about half of working Americans are covered by a workplace retirement plan.”

Sure you have. It’s a statistic that is widely cited and reported, both in the mainstream press and on Capitol Hill. It comes from a reliable, objective source (the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey) and conjures up a compelling need for action by advisors (and others) hoping and working to expand the availability of workplace retirement plans.

In reviewing the Census Bureau data, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently noted that, in 2011, 78.5 million workers worked for an employer or union that did not sponsor a retirement plan. That is the “less than half” number cited, and reported, with such vigor.

However, when you look at the data underlying that aggregate number, you find it includes:
  • 8.9 million people who were self-employed (and thus arguably are prevented from being covered by their own inaction);
  • 6.2 million who were under the age of 21 (who, being under ERISA’s mandated age coverage level, would logically not be “covered”);
  • 3.9 million who were age 65 or older (and beyond “normal” retirement age);
  • just over 31 million who were not full-time, full-year workers; and
  • 16.8 million who had annual earnings of less than $10,000.
When you take those factors into account, it’s pretty easy to see logical reasons why so many workers are not “covered.” When you filter out the overlap between those categories — situations where workers fall into several of those categories simultaneously (for example, workers who are under age 21, have less than $10,000 in annual earnings and are not full-time, full-year workers) — there are about 42.4 million workers whose lack of coverage might logically be attributed to being in one or more of those categories. And yes, that’s more than half of the “uncovered” workers in the CPS analysis.

Not that there isn’t a gap in coverage — unpublished estimates from EBRI drawn from the March 2013 Current Population Survey suggest that approximately 20 million private sector workers earning between $30,000 and $100,000 per year don’t have access to a retirement plan at work. That’s a gap that needs to be filled, and advisors, working with plan sponsors and providers, are working to do so every day.

So yes, claiming that “fewer than half of working Americans have access to a workplace retirement plan” is technically accurate. But while it makes for a compelling headline, it represents a gap in news coverage of the issue that hinders our understanding of the real factors underlying the data, and in the process undermines our ability to address it.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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