“Under” Covered?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams, EBRI

One of the more pervasive statistics bandied around about the voluntary retirement system is that only about half of working Americans are covered by a workplace retirement plan.

It’s a data point that is widely and openly presented as fact—not only by those inclined to dismiss the current system as inadequate, but even by some of its most ardent champions, who see that result as a call to action for expanded access to these programs.

There’s only one problem: It doesn’t tell the whole story.

A 2011 EBRI report  found that in 2010, 77.6 million workers worked for an employer/union that did not sponsor a retirement plan and 91.0 million workers did not participate in a plan. However, focusing in on employees who did not work for an employer that sponsored a plan, 9.0 million were self‐employed.

Of the remaining 68.5 million:

  • 6.2 million were under the age of 21, and
  • 3.7 million were age 65 or older.
  • 32 million (approximately) were not full‐time, full‐year workers, and
  • 17.2 million had annual earnings of less than $10,000.

Now, admittedly, many of these workers would fall into several of these categories simultaneously (they might, for instance be under age 21, make less than $10,000 in annual earnings, and not be a full‐time, full‐year worker). But if you adjust these numbers so that only workers who work full-time, full‐year, make $10,000 or more in annual earnings, and work for an employer with 50 or more employees, only 17.4 million workers (or 26.7 percent) would be included among those working for an employer that did not sponsor a plan.

Of course, another way to look at this last number is that 73.3 percent of these workers with those characteristics worked for an employer that DID sponsor a retirement plan in 2010.

And that’s a lot more than 50 percent.

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