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Friday, January 14, 2011

Ownership of Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and Policy Options for Congress

John J. Topoleski
Analyst in Income Security

Preparing for financial security in retirement continues to be a concern of working Americans and policymakers. Although most Americans participate in the Social Security system, Social Security is likely to be only a part of income in retirement. A recent Gallup poll indicated that while 34% of working Americans expect Social Security to be a major source of retirement income, 45% of those polled expect private retirement savings accounts to be a major source of retirement income.

Since the 1920s, Congress has provided tax incentives to employers to sponsor pension plans for their workers. Recognizing that workers for companies that did not offer pension plans did not benefit from the incentives, in 1974, Congress permitted workers without pension plans to establish Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). IRAs are tax-advantaged savings accounts to encourage workers to save for retirement. Since 1974, eligibility for IRAs and the tax treatment of contributions to IRAs have changed. Currently, workers without pensions and workers with pensions whose income is under certain limits may make tax-deductible contributions to IRAs. Other workers may make non-deductible contributions. Since 1998, some workers have been able to make non-deductible contributions to Roth IRAs. Lump-sums from employer-sponsored pensions may be rolled-over into either traditional or Roth IRAs. Most of the funds in IRAs consist of rollover balances rather than the accumulation of contributions and investment earnings.

IRAs may be falling short of their goal of encouraging workers to save for retirement. While about one-half of working Americans participate in employer-sponsored pensions, only about one-third of working households in the United States owned an IRA in 2007. Although IRAs were originally intended for workers in employment without pension plans, IRA ownership rates are higher among households in which the head or spouse participates in a pension plan at work. Among households with pension coverage, 38.7% had an IRA in 2007. Among households without pension coverage, 25.5% had an IRA in 2007.

Analysis of the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve indicates that households that own IRAs tend to be older, wealthier, more educated, and have higher propensities to save than households that do not own IRAs. Although one-third of working households owned an IRA in 2007, relatively few households made a tax-deductible IRA contribution in 2007. Statistics of Income data from the Internal Revenue Service indicate that 2.3% of tax returns reported a tax-deductible IRA contribution in 2007. The percentage of taxpayers reporting tax-deductible IRA contributions was lower in 2007 than in any year since 1978. Both the percentage of taxpayers reporting tax-deductible IRA contributions in 2007 and the average amount of that contribution increased as taxpayers’ reported income increased.

Although IRA ownership rates are lower among households without pension coverage, IRA ownership patterns are similar among households with and without pension coverage. For example, IRA ownership increases as households’ income increases and IRA ownership rates are higher among households that own their homes compared with households than do not own their homes. Some policy proposals that supporters argue will increase IRA ownership rates and account balances include making the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit a refundable tax credit, adopting Automatic IRA proposals, increasing household financial literacy, and making the fees that financial institutions charge IRA owners more transparent.

Date of Report: January 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: R41476
Price: $29.95

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