Private Pensions, the Tax Code, and the Erosion of Retirement Income Security

Source: John C. Scott, A Paper Submitted to the Conference on Empirical Legal Studies – November 9-10, 2007, posted to the web: July, 5 2007

abstract
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American workers are experiencing a long-term decline in the quality and quantity of retirement income security despite the enactment of dozens of tax laws supporting private pensions, hundreds of tax rules, and billions in lost tax revenue for over 40 years. Why is pension security eroding, and why is retirement income policy ineffective? I argue that the system of tax laws and institutions governing private pensions both directs political change as well as responses to such change in a way that is shifting risk onto workers. This paper grounds its review in the structure of pension law as found in the tax code. I first review general trends regarding retirement and retirement plans as well as the general pattern of tax legislation affecting pensions. In particular, I note the rise of the 401(k) plan, which has become the major type of private pension program in the United States. The combination of a diffuse set of tax laws governing pensions and the fragmented nature of key stakeholders creates an game-like environment in which each group and subgroup compete for changes in tax legislation at the expense of others. The paper concludes with an attempt to bridge fiscal sociology with the sociology of risk in the context of retirement policy.

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