Data and Research

GAO Issues Call to Examine American Retirement System

According to a GAO report, it has been nearly 40 years since a federal commission has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the nation’s approach to financing retirement.

By Rebecca Moore | October 19, 2017

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has examined challenges to retirement security for Americans, drawing from prior work and others’ research, as well as insights from a panel of retirement experts about how to better ensure a secure and adequate retirement, with dignity, for all.

In a report, the GAO notes that fundamental changes have occurred over the past 40 years to the nation’s current retirement system. In particular, it says there has been a marked shift away from employers offering traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plans to defined contribution (DC) plans, such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s, as the primary type of retirement plan. “This shift to DC plans has increased the risks and responsibilities for individuals in planning and managing their retirement,” GAO says.

The agency also notes that economic and societal trends—such as increases in debt and health care costs—can impede individuals’ ability to save for retirement.

According to the GAO report, the three pillars of the current retirement system in the United States are anticipated to be unable to ensure adequate benefits for a growing number of Americans due, in part, to the financial risks associated with certain federal programs. GAO notes that Social Security’s retirement program is projected to be unable to pay full benefits as soon as 2035. Long-term fiscal projections show that, absent fiscal policy changes, the federal government is on an unsustainable path, largely due to spending increases driven by the growing gap between federal revenues and health care programs, demographic changes, and net interest on the public debt.

In addition, the report notes that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) has reported that its multiemployer plan program is likely to run out of money by 2025.

GAO adds that individual savings and savings in DC plans are inadequate to fund a secure retirement.

According to the report, it has been nearly 40 years since a federal commission has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the nation’s approach to financing retirement.  A panel of retirement experts convened by GAO in November 2016 agreed that there is a need for a new comprehensive evaluation. GAO says the experiences of other countries can also provide useful insights for ways to improve the system.

“Congress should consider establishing an independent commission to comprehensively examine the U.S. retirement system and make recommendations to clarify key policy goals for the system and improve how the nation promotes retirement security,” the agency concludes.

The full GAO report may be downloaded from here.