The GAO report reviewed retirement income strategies, policies, and choices made by retirees. Many retirees born in 1943 who started taking Social Security benefits when they turned 62, for example, passed up increases of at least 33% in their monthly inflation-adjusted Social Security benefit levels available at full retirement age of 66. Most retirees who left jobs with a defined benefit pension received or deferred lifetime benefits, but only 6% of those with a defined contribution plan chose or purchased an annuity at retirement.
Those in the middle income group who had savings typically drew down those savings gradually. Nonetheless, an estimated 3.4 million people (9%) age 65 or older in 2009 had incomes (excluding any noncash assistance) below the poverty level. Among people of all ages the poverty rate was 14.3%.
The report said financial experts GAO interviewed typically recommended that retirees systematically draw down their savings and convert a portion of their savings into an income annuity to cover necessary expenses, or opt for the annuity provided by an employer-sponsored DB pension instead of a lump sum withdrawal. Experts also recommended that individuals delay receipt of Social Security benefits until reaching at least full retirement age and, in some cases, continue to work and save, if possible.
For example, for the two middle net-wealth households GAO profiled with about $350,000 to $375,000 in net wealth, experts recommended purchase of annuities with a portion of savings, drawdown of savings at an annual rate, such as 4% of the initial balance, use of lifetime income from the DB plan, if applicable, and delay of Social Security. To navigate the difficult choices on income throughout retirement, the experts noted strategies depend on an individual’s circumstances, such as anticipated expenses, income level, health, and each household’s tolerance for risks, such as investment and longevity risk.
The GAO made no recommendations in its report, but said policy options proposed by various groups concerning income throughout retirement include encouraging the availability of annuities in DC plans and promoting financial literacy. Certain proposed policies seek to increase access to annuities in DC plans, which may be able to provide them at lower cost for some individuals. However, some plan sponsors are reluctant to offer annuities for fear that their choice of annuity provider could make them vulnerable to litigation should problems occur.
Other proposed options aim to improve individuals’ financial literacy, especially to better understand risks and available choices for managing income throughout retirement in addition to the current emphasis on saving for retirement. Proposed options include additional federal publications and interactive tools, sponsor notices to plan participants on financial risks and choices they face during retirement, and estimates on lifetime annuity income on participants’ benefit statements.
The GAO report is at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-400.A podcast is available at http://www.gao.gov/podcast/watchdog_episode_64.html.