By Ezra Klein
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Washington frets endlessly over the problems that Social Security and Medicare, both of which are projected to exhaust their trust funds in the coming decades, might cause the budget. But two reports underscore the serious problems they might solve for the country.
Take Social Security. For years, pension experts have spoken of the "three-legged stool" of retirement savings: Social Security, employer pensions and private savings. In recent years, however, that stool has begun to wobble, and today, Social Security is basically the only leg holding it up.
In 1980, about 40 percent of private-sector workers had a guaranteed pension. By 2006, that had fallen to 15 percent. Today, the 401(k) reigns supreme, with a trajectory that is almost the precise reverse of guaranteed pensions: In 1979, 17 percent of workers had a 401(k). Today, 42 percent do.
Those 401(k)s, however, are woefully underfunded. In 2010, 75 percent of workers nearing retirement had less than $30,000 in their 401(k). Sixty percent of low-income households are at risk of being unable to maintain their already modest living standards in retirement.
Individual savings don't look much better. About a third of households don't have a savings account at all. More than 40 percent don't have enough to cover basic expenses if they lost their main source of income. In a vicious cycle, the need for savings is so great that many workers are tapping their 401(k)s early: In 2010, contributions to defined-benefit pensions totaled $176 billion, while early withdrawals — which carry heavy penalties — totaled $60 billion.
Today, Social Security provides 37 percent of the income for all Americans over age 65, and about 80 percent of the income for seniors in the bottom half of the income distribution. Given the state of private and employer pensions, those numbers will have to rise in the coming years, or else the standard of living for seniors will fall.