Is the U.S. Retirement System Contributing to Rising Wealth Inequality?

Data from the Survey of Consumer Finances for 1989 through 2013 reveal five broad findings. First, overall retirement plan participation was stable or rising through 2007, though overall participation fell noticeably in the wake of the Great Recession and has remained lower. Second, cohort-based analysis of life-cycle trajectories shows that participation in retirement plans is strongly correlated with income, and that the recent decline in participation is concentrated among younger and low- to middle-income families. Third, the shift in the type of pension coverage from defined benefit (DB) to defined contribution (DC) occurred within—not just across—income groups. Fourth, retirement wealth is less concentrated than nonretirement wealth, so the growth of retirement wealth relative to nonretirement wealth helped offset the increasing concentration in nonretirement wealth. Fifth, the shift from DB to DC had only a modest effect in the other direction because DC wealth is more concentrated than DB wealth.

– RSF Journal