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How America’s 401(k) Revolution Rewarded the Rich and Turned the Rest of Us Into Big Losers

A failed public policy experiment is tearing the country apart.
 
 
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It was a bad idea from the get-go, but new research shows that America’s 401(k) revolution has left us even worse off than we thought. Here’s a look at how we got into this mess, and where it will take us if we don’t wise up.

The Dumbest Retirement Policy in the World

Thirty years ago, as laissez-faire fanaticism took hold of America, misguided policy-makers decided that do-it-yourself retirement plans, otherwise known as 401(k)s, would magically secure our financial future in the face of gyrating markets, economic crises, unpredictable life events, stagnant wages and rampant job insecurity. It was an extraordinary shift in thinking about public policy: Instead of having predictable streams of income from traditional pensions, ordinary people with little financial expertise would suddenly transform themselves into financial gurus, putting money aside and managing complicated investments in tax-deferred accounts.

There were red flags along the way. 401(k)s were originally supposed to supplement pensions, but clever corporate cost-cutters decided that voluntary individual accounts would replace them. Big difference! Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, the national savings rate fell. Real wages dropped. As Helaine Olen details in her book Pound Foolish, Americans started borrowing against retirement plans to pay the mortgage or send the kids to college. The media was basically out to lunch, and politicians went on claiming the nonsense that individual retirement accounts would encourage savings and turn us all into professional money managers. The stock market would bring us double-digit returns. Whoopie!

Reality check: In 2007, the financial crisis destroyed America’s retirement fantasy. Jobs evaporated or were downsized. The stock market took a nosedive. Millions of Americans who had worked hard, straining to sock away a portion of their salary for 401(k)s, watched helplessly as a black cloud formed over their golden years. In October 2008, the Congressional Budget Office revealed that Americans had lost $2 trillion in just 15 months — money that will likely never be recovered. Not long after, President Obama betrayed the public by turning away from the jobs crisis to create a deficit commission whose leaders had the stunning lack of foresight to advise cutting Social Security at a time when the retirement train wreck was quickly picking up steam.

Today, the balance in our retirement accounts falls wildly short of what we need to keep us from destitution in old age, much less to secure a comfortable existence. According to the Vanguard Group, in 2012, the average account balance in our 401(k)s was $86,212 — and that number is skewed by high earners at the top. The amount experts say we need? $1 million or more, depending on how much you make now.

America, Land of Inequality

The long-term effects of an experiment gone awry are starting to become clear. The Economic Policy Institute has just released a study proving that do-it-yourself retirement is driving economic inequality, leaving regular Americans further behind than ever. Not since the Gilded Age has there been such a gulf between the rich and the rest. EPI’s Retirement Inequality Chartbook offers dozens of charts that examine retirement preparedness and outcomes by income, race and ethnicity, education, gender and marital status.

The report reveals that median retirement savings today stand at a paltry $44,000. But if you start looking at affluent America, the picture changes dramatically. A household at the 90 percentile of the retirement savings distribution had nearly 100 times more socked away for retirement than the median household. And the top 1 percent? Households at that lofty level had stashed more than $1.3 million in retirement account savings.