Support in Congress for the tax reform measure that reduces corporate income tax rates was predicated on the belief that giving companies more money would stimulate the economy. Whether it will and to what extent remains to be seen, but it’s a positive development that several large companies already are pledging to share their windfalls with employees.
At least two prominent corporations have decided to structure a kickback to workers in the form of larger contributions to employee 401(k) accounts, which is a smart decision given the precarious levels of retirement savings among U.S. workers. Visa, the international credit card company, said it plans to raise contributions to 401(k) accounts to as high as 10 percent of an employee’s base salary. The insurance company, Aflac, has made a similar pledge. It would be good to see more companies follow suit.
Other large employers, such as AT&T, Boeing and Wal-Mart, have promised to share proceeds from tax cuts with employees in the form of higher pay or bonuses. Historic data show that when people receive raises or bonus payments, they tend to spend, as opposed to putting it away in a savings account. While increased consumer spending could have an immediate economic impact, prompting workers to save more for retirement would have lasting benefits that might help reverse at least one trend that threatens the nation’s future prosperity.
Nearly half of the nation’s workers have saved no money for retirement, according to private and government data. Among workers ages 51-60, the median amount of money in retirement accounts is less than $20,000. While those workers may now be contributing to the economy as consumers, they will have little, if any, disposable income to spend come retirement. Instead, they will contribute to escalating pressure on the Social Security system to provide a tenable safety net for unprepared retirees.
Even before tax reform, modest but steady economic growth led to increases in the amount saved for retirement. Since the end of the recession of 2008, the total amount in 401(k) accounts has grown from about $3 trillion to $5 trillion. Parenthetically, in the context of another trend that threatens future prosperity, the national debt increased from $13 trillion to more than $20 trillion during the same time period.
We have made our disappointment clear that Congress failed to directly address the impact of tax reform on the national debt. Economists do not universally embrace the belief that greater economic growth will automatically reduce deficits and chip away at debt.
In the big picture, while retirement accounts have been growing in aggregate, a large number of individuals remain financially unprepared for life after employment. It’s good to see corporations exercise social responsibility and use at least a portion of their savings from tax reform to help their employees become better prepared.
It also would be nice to see Congress exercise similar responsibility by undertaking a sober examination of the impact of tax-and-spend policies on the nation’s current and future debt, as well as the viability of its important entitlement programs. Despite fiscal irresponsibility on the part of Congress, at least American workers are facing better opportunities to prepare for their golden years.