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The Devolution of the American Pension System: Who Gained and Who Lost?


  • Edward N. Wolff

    () (Department of Economics, New York University)


One of the most dramatic transformations in the economy over the last two decades has been the replacement of traditional Defined Benefit (DB) pension plans with Defined Contribution (DC) pensions. Using data from the 1983, 1989, and 1998 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), I find that among age group 47-64, the proportion with a DB plan plummeted from 69% to 42% between 1983 and 1998 and the share with a DC plan skyrocketed from 12% to 60%. However, median Private Accumulations (the sum of net worth and pension wealth) fell by 14% among middle-aged households over this period. The inequality of total pension wealth increased sharply over this period as a result of the switchover from DB plans to DC accounts. DB pension wealth is also found to have a very modest equalizing effect on overall wealth inequality. Moreover, DB pension wealth has a weaker offsetting effect on wealth inequality in 1998 than in 1983.

Suggested Citation

  • Edward N. Wolff, 2003. "The Devolution of the American Pension System: Who Gained and Who Lost?," Eastern Economic Journal, Eastern Economic Association, vol. 29(4), pages 477-495, Fall.
  • Handle: RePEc:eej:eeconj:v:29:y:2003:i:4:p:477-495

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Poterba, James M & Venti, Steven F & Wise, David A, 1998. "401(k) Plans and Future Patterns of Retirement Saving," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 179-184, May.
    2. Alan L. Gustman & Thomas L. Steinmeier, 1989. "The Stampede Toward Defined Contribution Pension Plans: Fact or Fiction?," NBER Working Papers 3086, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Alan L. Gustman & Olivia S. Mitchell & Andrew A. Samwick & Thomas L. Steinmeier, "undated". "Pension and Social Security Wealth in the Health and Retirement Study," Pension Research Council Working Papers 97-3, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
    4. Bloom, David E & Freeman, Richard B, 1992. "The Fall in Private Pension Coverage in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(2), pages 539-545, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. Edward Wolff & Ajit Zacharias, 2009. "Household wealth and the measurement of economic well-being in the United States," The Journal of Economic Inequality, Springer;Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, vol. 7(2), pages 83-115, June.
    2. Martha A. Starr, 2006. "Macroeconomic dimensions of social economics: Saving, the stock market, and pension systems," Working Papers 2006-09, American University, Department of Economics.

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    JEL classification:

    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • H55 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Social Security and Public Pensions


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