Research & Analysis by Glenn R. Springstead
State and Local Government Employees Without Social Security Coverage: What Percentage Will Earn Pension Benefits That Fall Short of Social Security Equivalence?
Social Security is designed to provide a base of retirement income, to be supplemented in part by employer-sponsored retirement plans. However, approximately one-quarter of state and local government employees are not covered by Social Security, which federal law allows if their employer-provided plans provide comparable benefits. Yet many public pensions are less generous for recent hires, raising questions of whether those plans will still provide Social Security–equivalent benefits. The authors analyze 66 plans and project that a significant minority of them are likely to fall short of providing Social Security–equivalent benefits, potentially affecting 750,000 to 1 million noncovered workers annually.
State and local governments provide pensions to their employees instead of or along with Social Security coverage. The Great Recession and other events have adversely affected some state and local budgets, leading to pension reforms that aim to lower benefits and bolster funding levels. Using data for 2016–2019 from fund financial reports and independent research center databases, this article examines three key components of standard pension benefit formulas: vesting periods, final-average-salary computation periods, and benefit multipliers. This analysis is the first to examine those characteristics at the level of individual benefit tiers in state and local pension systems, and more significantly, to weight the statistics by the number of active members within each tier. Results are shown for tiers grouped by Social Security coverage status, worker occupation group, and whether the tier is open or closed to new hires.
The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reduces the Social Security benefits of individuals who would otherwise receive a full benefit based on earnings in Social Security–covered employment as well as pension income from noncovered employment. Since the WEP was established in 1983, critics have asserted that it overcorrects the would-be windfall for affected beneficiaries and is difficult to administer. This article considers two WEP replacement options that would modify the benefit calculation methodology. It compares the current WEP with the two options and discusses some of the possible effects of changing the current law.
Social Security's special minimum benefit is declining in relative value, does not provide a full benefit equal to the poverty threshold, and reaches fewer beneficiaries each year. Members of Congress and other key policymakers have proposed several methods for revising the special minimum benefit, either as part of reforming Social Security more broadly or as stand-alone policy options. Most of the new options would index the benefit to wages, helping ensure its sustainability into the future. The options differ in how they define a “year of coverage,” how many years of coverage are required to be eligible for any benefit increase, and how much the full benefit increase should be. Those choices will determine who will receive the benefit increase and how adequate their benefit will be.
This policy brief compares two options set forth by the Social Security Advisory Board to increase the full retirement age (FRA), the age at which claimants may receive unreduced Social Security old-age benefits. One option would raise the FRA from the current target of 67 years to 68 years; the other would raise the FRA to 70 years. The brief examines the effects of both options on the level of benefits of Social Security beneficiaries aged 62 or older in 2070 using Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) projections, and on Trust Fund solvency using estimates from the Social Security Administration's Office of the Chief Actuary. The brief finds that both options would reduce benefits, improve solvency, and slightly increase the poverty rate. Within each option, effects on benefits are relatively uniform across beneficiary characteristics, although some surviving spouse and disabled beneficiaries would be shielded from benefit reductions.
A person's Social Security benefit, or primary insurance amount (PIA), is 90 percent of the lowest portion of lifetime earnings, plus 32 percent of the middle portion of lifetime earnings, plus 15 percent of the highest portion of lifetime earnings. This policy brief analyzes the distributional effects of three options (the three-point, five-point and upper) discussed by the Social Security Advisory Board to reduce the PIA. The first option would reduce the PIA by 3 percentage points; the second would reduce it by 5 percentage points; and the third would reduce the 32 and 15 percentages of the PIA to 21 and 10 percent, respectively. The third option would exempt about one quarter of the lowest earning beneficiaries, while reducing benefits by a median average of 19 percent in 2070. None would eliminate Social Security's long-term fiscal imbalance, although the third option would eliminate more (76 percent) of the deficit than the three-point (18 percent) and five-point (31 percent) options.
Replacement rates are common and useful tools used by individuals and policy analysts to plan for retirement and assess the sufficiency of Social Security benefits and overall retirement income. Because the calculation and meaning of replacement rates differs depending on the definition of preretirement earnings, this article examines four alternative measures: final preretirement earnings, constant income payable from the present value of lifetime earnings (PV payment), wage-indexed average of lifetime earnings, and inflation-adjusted average of lifetime earnings (CPI average). The article also calculates replacement rates for Social Security beneficiaries aged 64–66 in 2005.
This article compares participation rates in three existing voluntary individual account-type plans—individual retirement accounts (IRAs), 401(k)s, and the federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)—in an effort to analyze who might participate in a voluntary individual account system.