As President Obama prepares to ride off into the sunset, among the perks he can look forward to is a presidential pension. Every month for the rest of his life, he’ll receive a retirement check for about $17,142 — not bad for a guy with at least a few black hairs remaining on his head.
And yet this sum is paltry compared to the retirement assets enjoyed by most big company CEOs, including some whose nest eggs were feathered by taxpayer dollars.
Take, for example, Michael Neidorff, the CEO of Centene, which manages health plans for Medicaid recipients and other poor Americans. Since Obamacare began expanding health coverage in 2010, Neidorff’s company retirement account has grown 658 percent, to nearly $140 million. That’s enough to generate a monthly check of $744,000—43 times as much as Obama’s.
If you think that’s a big gap, consider the retirement divide between top business leaders and working families. A new report I co-authored for the Institute for Policy Studies finds that in 2015, the 100 CEOs with the largest nest eggs had $4.7 billion in their combined company accounts. That’s as much as the entire retirement savings of the 41 percent of American families with the smallest nest eggs.
Compared to African Americans and Latinos, the gap is even wider. These 100 CEOs’ retirement savings are equal to those of 59 percent of African-American families and a whopping 75 percent of Latino families.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, 39 percent of workers nearing retirement age (56 to 61 years old) have no retirement account savings whatsoever. That means they’re likely to be entirely dependent on Social Security, which currently pays an average benefit of just $1,239 per month.
This grim picture will become even grimmer if Republicans manage to push through their new plan to overhaul Social Security. Introduced last week, the plan would cut benefits for all but the lowest earners by 17 percent to 43 percent by the year 2080, and hike the retirement age to 69 by 2030.
In the richest country in the world, why do so many millions of working people have to worry about paying their bills in their golden years?
One major factor is the demise of the traditional pension. While feathering their own nests, CEOs have stripped employees of plans that guarantee a monthly check. Instead, if ordinary workers get any retirement benefits at all, they tend to be the much less generous and riskier 401(k)-type plans. As of 2013, only about half of private sector workers had a 401(k) and the average account balance was just $18,433.
The drug wholesaler McKesson is one example of this trend. In 1997, it froze its employee pension fund, but continued to offer executives lavish benefits. CEO John Hammergren has amassed $147 million in his own company retirement funds over the past 20 years. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt closed the employee pension in 2010 and replaced it with a 401(k) scheme. Meanwhile, his company retirement account has ballooned to $92 million.
CEOs actually have a powerful personal incentive for reducing worker retirement benefits. More than half of executive compensation is now tied to the company’s stock price, so boosting short-term profits through cost-cutting is a way to pad their own pockets.
Rather than pushing a reform that will only increase retirement inequality, policymakers should be focused on ensuring a dignified life for all seniors. And to achieve that, CEOs and other wealthy Americans will need to pay their fair share.
One way to generate some revenue to expand Social Security would be to ban the special tax-deferred retirement accounts most Fortune 500 companies set up for their top executives. While ordinary workers have strict limits on how much they can put in 401(k) plans every year ($24,000 max for older workers), CEOs are allowed to shelter unlimited amounts from the IRS in these accounts. Our report finds that Fortune 500 CEOs have nearly $3 billion stashed in such deferred plans.
Much larger sums could be raised by lifting the cap on Social Security payroll contributions, which is currently set at $118,500 per year. Almost all other American workers have to chip in a share of all of their earned income. Why should it be any different for CEOs?
We’ve heard a great deal this election year about rising economic anxiety in communities that have lost jobs which were once a source of decent pay and retirement benefits. Now it’s time to do something about it. Everyone should be able to enjoy their golden years—not just former CEOs and presidents.