Cutting Retirement Plan Tax Break Would Hurt Low-Income Workers Most: EBRI Survey

Report shows how workers would react to modification of exclusion of employee contributions to retirement savings plans

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Lower-income workers would be far more likely than higher-income counterparts to reduce their contributions if Congress were to lower or eliminate the tax exclusion for employee contributions for retirement savings plans, according to new findings by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) released Wednesday.

EBRI's 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) shows that more than three-quarters of full-time workers with household income of $15,000 to $25,000 say that having the ability to deduct their contributions to retirement savings plans is "very important." Fifty-six percent of full-time workers currently saving for retirement say they would reduce the amount they put aside if they were no longer able to deduct retirement savings plan contributions from taxable income.

By comparison, only 22% of full-time workers currently saving for retirement with household incomes of $100,000 or more say they would save less if the tax treatment of their retirement savings plan were reduced or eliminated.

The reactions become even starker as saving amounts grow, EBRI found: 71% of those with less than $1,000 in savings said they would reduce the amount saved if they were no longer allowed to deduct their contributions, compared with about 13% of those with $500,000 or more.

"Our research suggests that that some proposals to modify the exclusion of employee contributions for retirement savings plans from taxable income may have unintended consequences," Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the report, said in a statement. "Instead of reducing the contribution levels of those with larger taxable incomes (and hence higher marginal tax rates), the RCS results indicate that workers with low levels of household income would be most likely to cut their contribution—in some cases completely."

Individuals who work for small private organizations and those with relatively low educational levels were found to be most likely to reduce their contributions to retirement savings plans.

Modification proposals

EBRI noted that several proposals have surfaced to reform the 401(k) system in recent years. These have been based on the assumption that higher-income individuals receive more tax-related benefits from these programs than do individuals in lower marginal tax brackets (as well as those who may pay no federal income taxes in a particular year). Some of these proposals have included modifications of the current federal income taxation treatment that excludes some or all of the contributions employees make to tax-qualified defined contribution plans.

From a strictly financial perspective, VanDerhei said, it is logical to assume that the lower-income individuals (those most likely to pay no or low marginal tax rates and therefore have a smaller financial incentive to deduct retirement savings contributions from taxable income) would be least likely to rate the exclusion of employee contributions for retirement savings plans from taxable income as "very important."  

However, the RCS data show that those in the household income category of $15,000 to $25,000 actually have the largest percentage of respondents classifying the tax deductibility of contributions as very important. VanDerhei said that although higher-income workers would be the most likely to be negatively affected by a reduction or elimination of the exclusion of employee contributions for retirement savings plans from taxable income, behavioral economics has shown that workers' reaction in similar situations are often at odds with what would have been logically predicted.

The EBRI analysis notes that determining the overall tax advantage of making before-tax contributions to a 401(k) plan involves the prediction of several factors, including amounts and timing of contributions, marginal tax rates during the accumulation and decumulation periods, rates of return and withdrawal behavior during the decumulation period.

EBRI reported other findings:

  • Results by savings level:Of the full-time workers who are currently saving for retirement who report that they currently have less than $1,000, 71.3% say they would reduce the amount saved. This value declines to 38.8% for those with savings between $1,000 and $10,000.
  • Results by education level: Approximately 32% of high school graduates indicate they would reduce savings, whereas only 22% of those with a graduate or professional degree have a similar response.

EBRI is a private, nonprofit research institute based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on health, savings, retirement, and economic security issues. The organization does not lobby and does not take policy positions.

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