EBRI Says CPS Retirement Data is a Turkey

A new report casts doubt on the retirement data contained in a widely used government survey.

The nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) says that the U.S. Census Bureau’s widely used Current Population Survey (CPS), which two years ago underwent a major redesign of the questions pertaining to income, appears to be resulting in a significant undercounting how many people participate in an employment-based retirement plan.

Looking at the latest results from the redesigned CPS, a new EBRI report finds that the survey’s estimates of sharp declines in retirement-plan participation contradict other government data – and, significantly, finds that the groups of workers with the biggest drops in participation were those with the highest likelihoods of participation – older, higher earners, and employees of larger employers.

At issue is the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (fielded in March of each year) to the CPS, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which, in addition to allowing for estimates of employment-based retirement participation, is one of the most-cited sources of income data for those who are likely to be retired (typically ages 65 or older), according to EBRI.

In response to past research showing that the survey misclassified and generally under-reported income – particularly pension income – the Census Bureau conducted a redesign of the CPS questionnaire in 2014, and while the changes appear to have improved the accuracy of data on pension income (which increased under the redesigned CPS), EBRI notes they also resulted in historically “sharp and significant” reductions in the levels of worker participation in employment-based retirement plans.

Data Divergence

EBRI notes that, for example, the percentage of full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21-64 participating in an employment-based retirement plan (those most likely to do so) declined by more than 11 percentage points from a 2013 estimate (under the traditional questionnaire design) to 2015 (after the redesign). This translates into more than 9 million fewer individuals participating in an employment-based retirement plan. However, not only were the 2014 and 2015 declines found in the CPS estimates larger than at any point since at least 1987, the declines are not consistent with the findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey, which found that the percentage of private-sector wage and salary workers at establishments with 500 or more employees participating in an employment-based retirement plan actually increased from 76% in 2013 to 77% in 2014, before slipping back to 76% in 2015.

Consider too that the percentage of full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21-64 who worked for an employer with 1,000 or more employees who participated in an employment-based retirement plan was 66.5% in 2013 under the traditional questionnaire design, but under the redesigned questionnaire in 2015, the percentage participating was 51.8% – a 14.7 percentage point reduction. Among workers of employers with 100-499 workers, the reduction was even larger, as the 2015 estimate was 15.4 percentage points lower.

The full report, “Another Year After the Current Population Survey Redesign and More Questions About the Survey’s Retirement Plan Participation Estimates,” is available at https://www.ebri.org/pdf/notespdf/EBRI_Notes_11-no12-Nov16-CPS.pdf.

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