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Soc Secur Bull. 2000;63(1):34-9.

Participation in voluntary individual savings accounts: an analysis of IRAs, 401(k)s, and the TSP.


New voluntary individual savings accounts have been proposed by some as a part of, or in addition to, Social Security. The success of these proposals would depend greatly on how many workers participate. This paper compares participation rates in three existing voluntary individual account-type plans--Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), 401(k)s, and the federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)--to clarify expectations about who might participate in a voluntary individual account system. It finds that participants in IRAs, 401(k)s, and the TSP tend to be disproportionately male, higher earners, older, full-time workers, and either white or nonblack minorities compared with the population at large. Differences in earnings explain much of the difference between participation rates of men and women, however, but less of the difference between participation rates of workers of different races. Whether participation in a new system of voluntary individual accounts would resemble participation in IRAs, 401(k)s, or the TSP would depend on a number of factors. For instance, the population covered by 401(k)s and the TSP is much smaller than that covered by Social Security. Average earnings are also higher among 401(k) and TSP participants than for workers covered by Social Security, which, based on these findings, suggests that participation rates could be lower in a universal system. Participation would also depend on many other factors, however, such as the extent of matching contributions or other financial incentives, the investment options available, and the amount of education provided to potential participants.

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