U.S. workers need to save substantial amounts to supplement Social Security, a near-universal but basic public retirement benefit. Yet wealth inequality is widespread by race and ethnicity, so that households of color often have less wealth than White households. This wealth inequality is reflected in a massive retirement savings gap by race and ethnicity, so that households of color often have less wealth than White households. In 2016 Black households had a median retirement savings account balance of $23,000, compared to $67,000 for White households. Many people of color will face substantial and potentially harmful cuts to their retirement spending. They may, for example, find it more difficult to pay for housing or healthcare. This retirement gap is the result of several factors. Households of color, especially Black and Latino households, are less likely to receive large financial gifts and inheritances from their families. They have less wealth decades and often centuries of discrimination and exploitation in society. They thus have to save more for retirement on their own. Yet Black, Latino, and many Asian American workers face greater obstacles in saving for retirement than is the case for White workers. These obstacles are especially pronounced in retirement savings accounts. People of color have less access to these retirement benefits through their employers, contribute less due to greater concurrent economic risks, and build less wealth over time due to less stable earnings and more career disruptions. As a result, people of color often use home equity as a form of retirement savings, but they also face more financial risks associated with homeownership. In addition, many people of color face higher costs during retirement, especially higher healthcare costs and more widespread caregiving and financial responsibilities for family members. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of the obstacles and risks associated with retirement saving for people of color, who experienced sharper increases in unemployment and more widespread healthcare challenges due to greater exposure to the virus. Many Black, Latino, and Asian families had to rely more heavily on their own savings during the pandemic than was the case for White households. A range of public policies have been proposed or implemented, especially at the state level, to address some of the obstacles that people of color face in saving for retirement. Retirement researchers will need to investigate whether and how the pandemic has affected racial differences in retirement security as well as analyze how new policy efforts could shrink the racial differences in retirement wealth.
Dania V. Francis and Christian E. Weller
Francine J. Lipman
Since 2010, Congress has significantly cut the annual budget of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) while requiring the IRS to manage more responsibilities, including last-minute comprehensive tax reform, health care, broad-based antipoverty relief, and a variety of economic stimulus provisions. As a result, the IRS has sustained across-the-board decreases in staffing, with the most significant decreases in tax enforcement personnel. The IRS has fewer auditors than at any time since World War II, despite an explosion of concentrated income and wealth. Predictably, the tax gap, the difference between what taxpayers owe and what taxpayers pay, has skyrocketed to almost $1 trillion a year. Economists have estimated that funding the IRS will pay for itself severalfold, raising more than a trillion dollars of uncollected tax revenues over a decade. Despite evidence that funding will remedy budget shortfalls severalfold, Congress continues to defund the IRS. While the bulk of the tax gap is due to unreported income by high-income individuals, the audit rate of these households has dropped precipitously. By comparison, the lowest income wage earners are being audited five times more often than all other taxpayers. Given centuries of racist policies in the United States, households of color are disproportionately impoverished and white households are disproportionately wealthy. Accordingly, lower income working families of color, especially in the South, are audited at rates higher than their white northern counterparts. Moreover, because these households and the IRS have limited resources, many of these audits result in taxpayers losing antipoverty benefits that they have properly claimed. This discriminatory treatment is counter to Congressional intent to support these families and exacerbates existing racial income and wealth gaps. With President Biden’s 2021 executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government, the U.S. Treasury, IRS, and Congress have been charged to “recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.” Properly funding the IRS is a necessary step to advancing racial equity.