The Decade in Retirement: Wealthy Americans Moved Further Ahead

Just 52 percent of American households owned retirement accounts in 2016, according to Federal Reserve data, not much changed from 2010, when that figure stood at 50 percent. Racial gaps in account ownership are especially pronounced — 58 percent of white households owned retirement accounts in 2016, compared with just 33.6 percent of black households and 27.8 percent of Latino households.

Federal efforts to expand the availability of retirement accounts foundered during the decade. During the Obama administration, Congress refused to enact a system of mandatory auto-enroll I.R.A.s that President Barack Obama had proposed for workers lacking access to workplace plans; since then, 10 states have enacted similar plans of their own and several have launched.

Among households that had workplace retirement plans, the gains have been substantial. Average account balances jumped 22 percent from 2006 to 2018, according to Vanguard data.

More workers are contributing to plans as a result of widespread adoption by plan sponsors of automatic enrollment features. Equally important has been a major shift toward the use of target date funds, which add a level of professional management by automating asset allocation between equities and fixed income, adjusting the mix as retirement approaches. Last year, 52 percent of participants were using a target date fund, up from 13 percent in 2008, according to Vanguard — a figure the company expects to reach 70 percent in 2023.

Workers who lost their jobs in the recession often lost not only their incomes, but also their health insurance. Older jobless people who were not yet eligible for Medicare were at the mercy of the individual insurance market, where the likelihood of pre-existing conditions meant that they paid much higher premiums — and higher deductibles — if they could find coverage at all.

But the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 changed that, and the number of pre-Medicare older Americans without health insurance has dropped during the decade.

This year, 9.4 percent of adults ages 50 to 64 were uninsured, a decline from 14 percent in 2010, according to the Commonwealth Fund. The decline would have been much greater if 14 states had not rejected the law’s Medicaid expansion, according to Commonwealth — in states that expanded, the rate for this age group has fallen to 6.4 percent.

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