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Pensions in the 2000s: the Lost Decade?

  • Edward N. Wolff

One of the most dramatic changes in the retirement income system over the last three decades has been a decline in traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plans and a corresponding rise in defined contribution (DC) pensions. Have workers benefited from this change? Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, I find that after robust gains in the 1980s and 1990s, pension wealth experienced a marked slowdown in growth from 2001 to 2007. Projections to 2009 indicate no increase in pension wealth from 2001 to 2009. Retirement wealth is also found to offset the inequality in standard household net worth. However, I find that pensions had a weaker offsetting effect on wealth inequality in 2007 than in 1989. As a result, whereas standard net worth inequality showed little change from 1989 to 2007, the inequality of private augmented wealth (the sum of pension wealth and net worth) did increase over this period. These results hold up even when Social Security wealth and employer contributions to DC plans are included in the measure of wealth and when adjustments are made for future tax liabilities on retirement wealth.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16991.

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Date of creation: Apr 2011
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Edward N. Wolff, 2015. "U.S. Pensions in the 2000s: The Lost Decade?," Review of Income and Wealth, vol 61(4), pages 599-629.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16991
Note: AG PR
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  1. James M. Poterba & Steven F. Venti & David A. Wise, 1992. "401(k) Plans and Tax-Deferred Saving," NBER Working Papers 4181, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Eric M. Engen & William G. Gale, 2000. "The Effects of 401(k) Plans on Household Wealth: Differences Across Earnings Groups," NBER Working Papers 8032, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Kathleen M. McGarry & Andrew Davenport, 1998. "Pensions and the Distribution of Wealth," NBER Chapters, in: Frontiers in the Economics of Aging, pages 463-486 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Wojciech Kopczuk & Emmanuel Saez, 2004. "Top Wealth Shares in the United States: 1916-2000: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns," NBER Working Papers 10399, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Even, W.E. & Macpherson, D.A., 1991. "Why Did Male Pension Coverage Decline in the 1980s?," Working Papers 1991_08_01, Department of Economics, Florida State University.
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  7. Simon Kuznets, 1950. "Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number kuzn50-1, September.
  8. Alan L. Gustman & Thomas L. Steinmeier, 1999. "What People Don't Know About Their Pensions and Social Security: An Analysis Using Linked Data from the Health and Retirement Study," NBER Working Papers 7368, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Poterba, James M. & Venti, Steven F. & Wise, David A., 1995. "Do 401(k) contributions crowd out other personal saving?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 58(1), pages 1-32, September.
  10. Coronado Julia Lynn & Fullerton Don & Glass Thomas, 2011. "The Progressivity of Social Security," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 11(1), pages 1-45, November.
  11. Poterba, James M & Venti, Steven F & Wise, David A, 1994. "Targeted Retirement Saving and the Net Worth of Elderly Americans," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(2), pages 180-85, May.
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  14. repec:crr:issbrf:ib2006-50 is not listed on IDEAS
  15. Gary V. Engelhardt & Anil Kumar, 2011. "Pensions and Household Wealth Accumulation," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 46(1), pages 203-236.
  16. Johnson, Richard W & Sambamoorthi, Usha & Crystal, Stephen, 2000. "Pension Wealth at Midlife: Comparing Self-Reports with Provider Data," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 46(1), pages 59-83, March.
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