(Bloomberg) — Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement.
True, this has been a refrain for longer than many can remember. But now some disturbing numbers show exactly how bad it’s gotten. Two-thirds of all Americans don’t contribute anything to a 401(k) or other retirement account available through their employer.
Millions aren’t saving on the job because they either don’t have access to a workplace retirement plan or they do but aren’t putting money in it. Many just can’t spare the cash, but a new analysis shows there are other reasons, too.
Until now, the exact size of the problem has been unclear. Surveys can be unreliable: Small businesses are difficult to assess, and many workers just don’t know what plan options they have, especially if employers aren’t making much effort to sign them up. Information on a 401(k) may be part of a stack of paper handed out on their first day, that they don’t read or understand, and ultimately set aside and never think about again.
Now, U.S. Census Bureau researchers have come up with estimates that rely on tax data, which should be more reliable than surveys. Their conclusion: Only about a third of workers are saving in a 401(k) or similar tax-deferred retirement plan. Also, the gap is far wider than expected between the number of employers offering retirement plans, and the number of workers saving in them.
Only 14 percent of employers offer plans
Census researchers Michael Gideon and Joshua Mitchell analyzed W-2 tax records from 2012 to identify 6.2 million unique employers and 155 million individual workers, who held 219 million distinct jobs. This data produced estimates starkly different from previous surveys.
For example, previous estimates suggested more than 40 percent of private-sector employers sponsored a retirement plan. Tax records uncovered a much bigger pool of small businesses, showing that, overall, just 14 percent of all employers offer a 401(k) or other defined contribution plan to their workers.
Bigger companies are the likeliest to offer 401(k) plans, and since they employ more people than small firms, skew the overall number of U.S. workers who have the option. Gideon and Mitchell estimate 79 percent of Americans work at places that sponsor a 401(k)-style plan. The good news is that’s more than 20 points higher than previous estimates. The bad news is that just 41 percent of workers at those employers are making contributions to such a plan—more than 20 points lower than previous estimates.
The combined result of those two numbers is that just 32 percent of American workers are saving anything in a workplace retirement account. Four out of five workers are employed by companies that offer a 401(k) or similar plan, but most workers aren’t using them — either because they’re not eligible or because they aren’t signing up.
Lawmakers have proposed a variety of ways to get more people to save. Several states are experimenting with strategies to get every worker signed up for a retirement account. But they face serious pushback from the Republican-controlled Congress and the financial industry.