'After' Math: The Impact and Influence of Incentives on Benefit Policy

Nevin E. Adams

Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)

August 2012

EBRI Issue Brief, No. 374 (August 2012)

Whichever political party prevails in November 2012, it is likely that the next Congress will, of necessity, address issues of the federal deficit, entitlements, and tax policy -- specifically, proposals to modify or reduce existing tax preferences for health and retirement benefits. In that context, EBRI’s 70th policy forum focused on a range of topics, from tax policy and design incentives, to international trends and current drawdown rates, and how they might influence, and be impacted by, future events. This paper recaps the presentations and panel discussions at that event. Among the key points made at the policy forum:

As important as retirement and health benefits are to Americans’ short- and long-term economic security, the sheer size of their tax preferences makes them vulnerable in the battles over deficit reduction and tax reform. Private-sector health benefits alone rank as the largest single “tax expenditure” in the federal budget.

Retirement benefits are a tax deferral rather than an exclusion from income -- meaning the federal government will eventually recoup the forgone revenue. This distinguishes retirement plan deferrals from other tax exclusions.

Because the tax expenditure on 401(k)-type plans is a deferral, rather than an exclusion, reducing the tax expenditure in the current period also reduces the positive stream of revenue in the future.

The biggest difference between tax-expenditure estimates and revenue estimates for scoring tax reform is that the latter incorporates taxpayer behavior; tax expenditure estimates do not.

Ten percent or fewer of those ages 55-60 are making withdrawals from their IRA, compared with 80 percent of those 71 and older.

On a historical basis, depending on the period measured, pre-retiree balances in defined contribution retirement plans double about every eight to nine years.

Employer match levels seemed to have a bigger impact on older workers, but automatic enrollment seems much more significant in terms of getting younger employees to participate in retirement plans.

Common challenges for underfunded retirement systems worldwide include the need to increase the state pension age and/or “normal” retirement age for full benefits; to promote higher labor-force participation at older ages; to encourage or require higher levels of private saving; to increase retirement coverage of employees and/or the self-employed; and to reduce savings “leakage” prior to retirement.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 24

Keywords: 401(k) plans, Defined contribution plans, Employee benefit taxation, Employment-based benefits, Health insurance coverage, Individual retirement accounts (IRAs), Retirement plans, Tax expenditures, Tax policy, Tax reform

JEL Classification: D31, D91, E62, H6, I18, J26, J32, J33

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Date posted: September 1, 2012  

Suggested Citation

Adams, Nevin E., 'After' Math: The Impact and Influence of Incentives on Benefit Policy (August 2012). EBRI Issue Brief, No. 374 (August 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2139547

Contact Information

Nevin E. Adams (Contact Author)
Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) ( email )
1100 13th Street, NW
Suite 878
Washington, DC 20005-4204
United States
202-775-6329 (Phone)
202-775-6312 (Fax)

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