Urban InstituteRetirement Policy Center

Social Security


Social Security now pays out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes. The system's trustees expect this shortfall to persist for the foreseeable future unless Congress cuts benefits, raises taxes, or both. Our research examines Social Security's role in retirement income security, its impact on the federal budget, and the likely effect of proposed reforms.

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Evaluating Retirement Income Security for Illinois Public School Teachers (Research Report)
Richard W. Johnson, Benjamin G. Southgate

The financial problems afflicting Illinois’s teacher pension plan have grabbed headlines. An equally important problem, though underappreciated, is that relatively few teachers benefit much from the plan. Long-serving teachers receive generous pensions, but only 18 percent of teachers remain employed for at least 25 years. Only 24 percent of those who complete at least five years of service receive pensions worth more than the value of their required plan contributions. Alternative plan designs, such as cash balance plans, could distribute benefits more equitably and put more teachers on a path to a financially secure retirement.

Posted: July 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

What Every Worker Needs to Know About an Unreformed Social Security System (Testimony)
C. Eugene Steuerle

In this testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Social Security, Eugene Steuerle, Institute Fellow and Richard B. Fisher Chair at the Urban Institute discusses the fairness, efficiency and adequacy questions that arise almost no matter how much growth Congress maintains in Social Security. In particular he addresses three troubling aspects of an otherwise successful program: unequal justice; middle age retirement; and impact on the young.

Posted: July 29, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Flattening Tax Incentives for Retirement Saving (Research Report)
Barbara Butrica, Benjamin H. Harris, Pamela Perun, C. Eugene Steuerle

Under current law, a large share of tax benefits for retirement saving accrues to high-income employees. We simulate the short- and long-term effect of three policy options for flattening tax incentives and increasing retirement savings for low- and middle-income workers. Our results show that reducing 401(k) contribution limits increases taxes for high-income taxpayers; expanding the saver's credit raises saving incentives and lower taxes for low- and middle-income taxpayers; and replacing the exclusion for retirement saving contributions with a 25 percent refundable credit benefits primarily low- and middle-income taxpayers, and raises taxes and reduces retirement assets for high-income taxpayers.

Posted: June 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Policy Brief: How Will Teachers Fare in Rhode Island's New Hybrid Pension Plan? (Summary)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

Hybrid retirement plans that combine defined benefit pensions with 401(k) type, defined contribution accounts can play important roles in the reform of public-sector pensions. Summarizing results from our longer report, this brief shows that most public school teachers in Rhode Island will earn more retirement income from the state’s new hybrid plan than they would have earned in the former stand-alone defined benefit plan. However, teachers with at least 25 years of completed service, who account for only one-quarter of the total employed by the state, will fare worse in the hybrid plan.

Posted: May 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

How Will Rhode Island's New Hybrid Pension Plan Affect Teachers? (Research Report)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

In 2011 Rhode Island replaced the stand-alone defined benefit pension plan it provided to state employees with a hybrid plan that reduced the defined benefit component and added a 401(k)-type, defined contribution component. Although controversial, the new hybrid plan will boost retirement incomes for most of the state’s public school teachers. Our simulations show that two-thirds of newly hired teachers will earn more retirement benefits under the hybrid plan they would have earned under the old plan. Defined contribution plans—the dominant employer-sponsored retirement plan in the private sector—can play an important role in the reform of public-sector pensions.

Posted: May 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Adding Employer Contributions to Health Insurance to Social Security's Earnings and Tax Base (Research Report)
Karen E. Smith, Eric Toder

Including employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI) in taxable compensation would increase income and payroll tax receipts, but would also increase Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) benefits by adding ESI to the OASDI earnings base. The increased present value of OASDI benefits from including ESI in the wage base in 2014 would offset about 22 percent of increased income and payroll taxes, 57 percent of increased payroll taxes, and 72 percent of increased OASDI taxes. Both taxes and benefits as a share of income would increase between the bottom and middle quintiles and then decline for higher income taxpayers.

Posted: May 01, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

How Will State and County Government Employees Fare under Kentucky's New Cash Balance Pension Plan? (Research Report)
Richard W. Johnson, Benjamin G. Southgate

Kentucky recently replaced its traditional pension with a new cash balance plan for state and county employees hired after 2013. Employees who join the government payroll at relatively young ages and remain for no more than 25 years will accumulate more benefits in the cash balance plan than the traditional plan, while many of those with more years of service and hired at older ages will accumulate less. More than half of employees hired in 2014 who complete at least five years of service will fare better in the cash balance plan, which distributes benefits more evenly across the workforce.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

When Do State and Local Pension Plans Encourage Workers to Retire? (Research Brief)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

Traditional defined benefit pension plans that cover nearly all state and local government employees generally penalize work at older ages. In more than three-fifths of state-administered plans, employees hired at age 25 will receive lower lifetime pension benefits if they continue working after age 57 because retirement-eligible workers cannot receive benefit checks while they remain on the job. This reduction in benefits can create strong retirement incentives, which are hard to justify as the population ages and health gains and declines in physical work enable more older people to work. Well-designed public pension reforms could eliminate these work disincentives.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

How Long Must State and Local Employees Work to Accumulate Pension Benefits? (Research Brief)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

Traditional defined benefit pension plans that cover nearly all state and local government employees generally provide generous retirement benefits to long-tenured public servants but little retirement security to those with shorter tenures. Virtually every plan requires employee contributions. In half of those plans, employees must work at least 20 years before their future benefits are worth more than those contributions. Employees who separate earlier get nothing from their plan. Alternative designs like cash balance plans distribute benefits more equally across the workforce and allow employees who spend less than a full career in public service to accumulate retirement benefits.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Do State and Local Pensions Lock In Mid-Career Employees? (Research Brief)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

State and local pension plans often allow employees who have completed 25 or 30 years of service to collect benefits regardless of their age, instead of waiting until they reach their plan’s normal retirement age. The lifetime value of their pension surges when they qualify for early benefits. Our analysis shows that on average, half the benefits employees have accumulated by their early 50s or late 40s are earned from a single year of work. These patterns create strong incentives for mid-career workers to remain on the payroll until they realize these windfalls, including those ill-suited for their jobs.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

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