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President Obama Embraces the Defined Contribution Paradigm

By Edward Zelinsky

Many important decisions are embedded in the federal budget proposed by President Obama. Among these are the President’s embrace of the defined contribution paradigm. That paradigm promotes retirement savings through individual accounts such as IRAs and 401(k) accounts.

The Internal Revenue Code currently provides a savers’ income tax credit for lower income individuals who contribute to IRAs and 401(k) accounts. The Obama budget proposes to expand this credit and make it refundable. In addition, the Obama budget proposes to establish administrative infrastructure in the Department of Labor as the first step toward requiring employers without pension or profit sharing plans to enroll their employees in workplace IRAs.

Together, these two proposals commit the Obama Administration to the existing system of individual accounts as the prime means of encouraging private retirement savings.

Some observers had predicted a retreat from individual accounts in light of the Crash of 2008 and the consequent decline of most participants’ 401(k) and IRA balances. However, the Obama budget indicates that such a retreat is, so far at least, not occurring. Indeed, the Obama budget, if adopted as proposed, commits the federal government even more deeply to the individual accounts of the defined contribution paradigm.

Something similar happened after the fall of Enron. Enron’s demise devastated the 401(k) accounts of many Enron employees who held large quantities of Enron stock in such accounts. Some observers predicted that this debacle would force reconsideration of the individual accounts of the defined contribution paradigm. But, like Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night, no such reconsideration occurred.

Similarly, the Obama budget signals that, in the wake of the Crash of 2008, the federal government remains committed to individual accounts for retirement savings. President Obama proposes to double our bet on IRAs and 401(k) accounts, both by enriching the tax-subsidy for low income persons who contribute to such accounts and by making such accounts universal in the workplace.

This decision puts President Obama in potential conflict with his allies in the union movement. Today, the last bastions of the traditional defined benefit plan are the unionized work forces of state and local governments. Taxpayers thus find themselves paying taxes for lucrative defined benefit plans for unionized state and local employees. And now the Obama budget makes clear to these taxpayers that their retirement savings future is financing their own 401(k) accounts — even as these taxpayers fund often rich defined benefit pensions for government employees.

President Obama has not embraced President Bush’s rhetoric about an “ownership society.” However, there is in substance great continuity in the retirement savings policies embodied in President Obama’s budget and the prescriptions of the Bush Administration. The Obama budget, by expanding the savers’ income tax credit and moving toward universal IRAs in the workplace, embraces the defined contribution paradigm.


Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America.

Recent Comments

  1. David Pratt

    Unfortunately, you’re right. It’s a missed opportunity.

  2. Steve Calkins

    It is interesting, and part of what makes Obama so intriguing. I live in a state with wildly over-promised and under-funded public pensions, and only wish we had moved long ago to much greater use of defined contribution systems.

  3. jugs

    sorry misspelling

    how do tax payer dollars fund public (state & local) pension funds…and please, if you will in your answer, reference state and local unionized employees and how taxpayer dollars channel through

    thank you

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