How many American workers are benefiting from employer retirement programs?

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For most American workers, retirement savings either come from individual contributions to a retirement account or employer-sponsored programs that encourage saving. But according to economic data, while both options are present, people don’t generally save for retirement unless their employer offers a plan at work.

A new study by economist John Sabelhaus of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania knits together data from several data sets and finds that 47.7% of workers are not covered by a retirement plan at work. The data also shows disparities based on race, gender, and education — 76% of workers with less than a high school education aren’t covered, along with 63.6% of Hispanic workers and 53.2% of Black workers.

Marketplace’s senior economics contributor, Chris Farrell, spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about how numbers like this help explain the wide wealth accumulation gaps between white and minority workers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So why the focus on employer-sponsored retirement plans, because we could just save ourselves?

Chris Farrell: Right. But here’s the thing, most workers get their benefits through their employer, right? And the data is really clear, David, you know, if you have an employer-sponsored retirement plan at work, you’re going to save for retirement. And if you don’t, you don’t save for retirement. Of course, if you get a traditional pension, you’ll also have an income during retirement. But those traditional retirement plans are increasingly rare, especially for private-sector workers.

Brancaccio: Right, so key question: How many workers in America are not covered by a retirement plan, at work, by their employer?

Farrell: You would think it would be easy to come up with an answer, but there is no comprehensive database. And it’s really frustrating. And that’s why economist John Sabelhaus knit together several well-known data sets to come up with detailed estimates for the AARP Public Policy Institute. He finds that almost 48% of workers are not covered by a retirement plan at work.

Brancaccio: And what does this data look like when you break it down by race or by education?

Farrell: The results are depressing, but they’re not particularly surprising. For example, workers with less than high school education, three quarters. Three quarters aren’t covered by an employer retirement plan. Among Latinos, [about] 64%. Blacks, [about] 53%.

Brancaccio: And the study also looked at state by state, and it found differences.

Farrell: It did, it was much more than I thought. And this is Florida and Pennsylvania; these are the ones that were highlighted in the study, similar-sized states. 59% aren’t covered in Florida, while the comparable figure in Pennsylvania [is] 41%. Now even more striking among Latinos in Florida – 69% aren’t covered, while it’s 55% in Pennsylvania.

Brancaccio: Alright, I’ll offer you a new opportunity. We’ve discussed that a lot here, Chris, ideas for getting the uncovered into something like an employer-sponsored retirement plan. What are some ideas?

Farrell: Right now a number of states like Oregon – they stepped in with these IRA-like plans for uncovered private-sector workers. And they’re usually employed at small businesses. And by the way, David, the economic research is that the state-sponsored retirement plans are working. So I think part of the motivation behind the study is to convince more states to adopt these kinds of plans.

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