Retirement Income Data: Improvements Could Better Support Analysis of Future Retirees' Prospects

GAO-03-337 Published: Mar 21, 2003. Publicly Released: Mar 21, 2003.
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Future demographic trends include a doubling of the nation's retiree population and only modest labor force growth, leading to concerns about retirement income adequacy for future generations. Credible projections of the effects of policy proposals on federal spending and future retirees' income are necessary. Because adequate data is critical to the analysis of retirement income and wealth, GAO was asked to identify data improvements that experts say are a priority for the study of retirement income and wealth, as well as factors limiting efforts to obtain the needed information.

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Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
To facilitate plan participants', beneficiaries', and analysts' timely access to information about employer-provided pension plans, Congress may wish to consider directing the Secretary of Labor to obtain from plan administrators electronic filings of all summary plan descriptions (SPD) and summaries of material modifications required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and make them publicly available in electronic form.
Closed – Not Implemented
No congressional action has been taken that calls for electronic filing or public availability of summary plan descriptions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor To help provide the data needed to inform important policy decisions concerning retirement programs, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Bureau of Labor Statistics to prepare a plan to improve data for analyzing retirement income and wealth in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Federal Reserve Board, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the agencies represented in the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, including the Census Bureau, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and the National Institute on Aging. The plan should include cost-effective strategies to (1) make better use of existing statistics by linking survey and administrative data; (2) improve access to linked data consistent with privacy and confidentiality legislation; and (3) improve data collected from employers related to retirement income and wealth.
Closed – Not Implemented
Labor continues to state that it would not act on this recommendation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicated that, while BLS does not believe it is the appropriate agency to lead the effort, BLS would participate in the effort to improve data for analyzing retirement income and wealth.
Department of Labor For plans in place before these new filing requirements go into effect, and where it is cost-effective, the Secretary of Labor should use existing authority to obtain copies of summary plan descriptions and summaries of material modifications in cases where analysts working on federally conducted or federally sponsored research seek SPDs for statistical purposes. This should assist analysts of retirement income in obtaining information about the features of employer-sponsored benefit plans that are not electronically available.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Labor (DOL) will address requests for summary plan descriptions (SPDs) from people who are not plan participants or beneficiaries on a case-by-case basis. This will help analysts of retirement income obtain information about the features of employer-sponsored benefits plans that are not electronically available.
Internal Revenue Service To help analysts improve analyses of retirement plan finances, IRS should publish on an annual basis aggregate tabulations, such as those prepared in the Statistics of Income Bulletin, of information filed on IRS Forms 5498, 1099-R, and W-2.
Closed – Implemented
A second tabulation of these data appeared in an article in the Spring 2006 issue of the "Statistics of Income Bulletin." The previous tabulations, published in the Spring 2004 issue, covered tax year 2000. This more recent article covered tax years 2001 and 2002.

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