Americans urge Bush to step into pensions' crisis

Sep 11 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Nearly nine out of 10 U.S. adults believe the government should do something to ensure that Americans have enough to live on in retirement.

But the new poll of more than 2,000 people by the Wall Street Journal Online and Harris Interactive Personal Finance revealed a lack of consensus on exactly what this action should be.

Workers were divided on whether tax breaks, increases benefits or better state-backed pension plans were the better option, with views markedly differing depending on the ages of those being questioned.

Last month U.S. president George Bush signed the Pension Protection Act, making it a requirement for companies fully to fund their defined benefit plans within seven years.

But because of the high expense of funding pension plans, many experts believe the result will be a significant shift toward defined contribution plans, known as 401(k)s, which have already been experiencing increases over the past decade.

The law encourages companies to automatically enroll workers in 401(k) plans and match contributions up to a certain amount.

The poll found most adults backed federal intervention in the crisis.

A quarter said the government should increase tax breaks for people who had money for retirement in personal savings accounts.

More than one in five felt increasing social security payments would be a good solution, and 15 per cent say employers should be required to match worker contributions into 401(k) plans more than they do now.

Adults with an income of $75,000 or higher were much more likely to support tax breaks than those with an income of less than $35,000.

Younger adults (ages 18-44) were two times more likely than those 55 years or older to support employers matching worker contributions to 401(k) plans.

And requiring employers to fund pension plans was the least popular option among all.

Anne Aldrich, senior vice-president at Harris Interactive Financial Services Practice, said: "The fact that so few adults support the option of requiring employers to fund pension plans is reflective of the lack of trust that Americans have of pensions (and employers' ability/inclination to support them) today.

"The results of this poll align well with the bill signed by the president. While the bill requires companies to fully fund pensions within seven years, the expected outcome is that 401(k)-type programs will have increased participation," she added.

The survey showed a strong preference for employee-managed retirement plans, with 79 per cent saying that, if given a choice, they would choose to participate in a defined-contribution plan, such as a 401(k), compared with 21 per cent who say they would prefer a defined-benefit plan, where the employer manages the money and promises a set sum upon retirement.

While a third said they expected to rely on their own personal savings or investments in their retirement, 16 per cent said they would rely mainly on an employer-based pension in retirement, and 15 per cent expected to rely on an employer-offered 401(k).

Adults aged 18 to 34 were far more likely to say they expected to rely most on personal savings in retirement than their older counterparts.

Only four per cent of those ages 18 to 34 expected to rely on a pension plan, compared with 27 per cent of those aged 55 and older.