Top White House Economic Advisor Wants to Reform Tax Incentives for Retirement Income

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Pension360 covered yesterday the new study examining the ways income inequality manifests itself in retirement benefits.

Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council, presented his own ideas recently on the topic of inequality and retirement, and described what he labeled the “upside-down” tax incentive system that applies to retirement savings in the United States.

Sperling describes the way the U.S. tax system helps the wealthy but “shuns” low-income earners:

First, the federal government’s use of tax deductibility to encourage savings turns our progressive structure for taxing income into a regressive one: While earners in the highest income bracket get a 39.6 percent deduction for savings, the hardest-pressed workers, those in the lowest tax bracket, get only a 10 percent deduction for every dollar they manage to put away.

Second, while less than 1 percent of lower- and moderate-income Americans can put aside enough to fully “max out” their benefits on I.R.A. contributions, higher-income Americans can maximize their return on savings by sampling from a menu of tax-preferred savings options. A business owner could theoretically benefit from a 401(k), a SEP I.R.A. of up to $52,000 and a state-based 529 program that allows tax-free savings for college education.

Finally, a far larger share of upper-income Americans get matching incentives for savings from their employers. Members of Congress and the White House staff, for example, get an 80 percent match for saving 5 percent of their income. But while half of Americans earning more than $100,000 get an employer match, only 4 percent of those earning under $30,000 and less than 2 percent of those making under $20,000 get any employer match for saving.

The result of those incentives, according to Sperling: low-income workers are “triple losers” and wealthy individuals are “triple winners”.

That’s problematic, says Sperling, because low-income workers are precisely the people who should have incentives to save more for retirement.

Sperling proposes two specific policies towards that end: A flat tax credit on retirement income, and a universal 401(k) available to every worker.

Sperling:

One intermediate step would be to replace our regressive system of relying on tax deductibility with a flat tax credit that would give every American a 28 percent tax credit for savings, regardless of income. But why should we stop there? If we know that 401(k)’s with automatic payroll deductions and matching incentives work beautifully for those with access to them, why would we not institute a 401(k) for everyone?

A government-funded universal 401(k) would give lower- and moderate-income Americans a dollar-for-dollar matching credit for up to $4,000 saved annually per household. Upper-middle-class Americans could get at least a 60 percent match — doubling the incentive they get today. The match would be open to workers even if their employers were already matching, which would encourage employers to keep contributing to savings. The match would also be available through I.R.A. contributions for those who were self-employed or who wanted to keep saving even while they were temporarily not working.

As for the costs, Sperling proposes a reform to the estate tax that would raise the revenue needed to implement the 401(k) program.

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