It's time to level the retirement-plan playing field

Income inequality is a hot topic these days. The income of those at the top of the economic scale continues to rise, while the income of many of those in the middle or bottom has remained stagnant or even declined.

But a topic that's every bit as urgent as the income gap—but is not being talked about nearly as much—is retirement-plan inequality.

Financial Inequality
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This country is clearly facing a crisis as the baby boomers are heading into retirement. Study after study proves that a majority of people don't have enough money saved.

While much of this certainly can be attributed to a lack of savings discipline and planning, some is, no doubt, a result of the inequality of retirement savings vehicles provided to employees.

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The traditional pension plan, where a person works for an employer for 35 years and receives a monthly payment upon retirement, is a thing of the past for most of us. Pretty much the only folks who will receive these benefits are government employees and a small percentage of workers at large corporations.

As a way to make up for this shortfall, many Americans contribute to their employer's 401(k) plan. But what about the millions of Americans whose employers don't offer a 401(k)? They are all clearly at a disadvantage under our current system.

Briefly, employees fortunate enough to have a 401(k) available to them are able to contribute as much as $17,500 to their plan in 2014. Those age 50 or older can kick in another $5,500. That's $23,000 that can be saved, tax-deferred, for retirement.

For those who work for an employer that does not offer a 401(k), such as many small businesses and start-ups, the only tax-deductible retirement plan available to them is an individual retirement account. But what's the annual contribution limit on an IRA? Just $5,500—plus another $1,000 if you are 50 or older.

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Year after year after year, this amounts to a pretty massive retirement savings and tax-deferral gap.

But the unequal playing field doesn't suddenly level off there. The current system is not only terrible for many of the employees of small businesses, it's terrible for the owners of those small businesses as well.

That's because establishing and maintaining a 401(k) is not only costly and time-consuming, there are also far-reaching legal liabilities for companies that want to sponsor a plan. Business owners also have to consider the intrusion that comes with having a governmental agency monitoring their every move.

For numerous small businesses—with tight budgets and a bevy of rules and regulations—sponsoring a plan is simply too much of a burden, which means that many employees are left out in the proverbial cold when it comes to retirement preparation.

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So what can be done to make this more equitable? In terms of the government's role, I suggest bringing all retirement plans into closer alignment. A simple solution would be to provide the same tax-deductible limits for all employees. Whether a person works for a Fortune 500 company or the small business down the street, the same tax benefits should apply.

Think about this: You're age 54 and you work for a large corporation that has the resources to provide you with a 401(k). Your kids are out of college and you are doubling up on your retirement savings so that perhaps you can actually stop working one day.

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You save the maximum $23,000 into your employer's retirement plan. You receive a current tax deduction on those contributions, and your plan grows tax-deferred.

Your neighbor is in the exact same situation—same point in life, same income—but because he works for a small employer that doesn't offer a 401(k), he's stuck contributing a paltry $6,500 to an IRA.

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How is this fair? Two workers, same contribution to society, same desire to save for retirement, yet one receives almost four times the tax breaks.

In the spirit of providing every American with an equal opportunity, it would be a much better policy to provide each individual with similar options for saving for retirement. This could be done by simply changing the contribution limits on IRAs so that they match those of 401(k) plans.

"Providing parity among retirement plans will certainly not eliminate the upcoming retirement crisis, but it is an important step in the right direction."

Of course, you can just hear the politicians in Washington bemoaning the loss of tax revenue that would come with such a change. To make up for this, there are a couple of easy fixes.

First, stop the double-dipping that some state and municipal employees have. Many of these people are allowed to contribute to both a 401(k) and a 457 plan [Editor's note: A 457 plan, available to government employees, is similar to a 401(k) but has no 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.] This lets them sock away up to $46,000 per year on a pretax basis.

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Second, as there are roughly 80 million 401(k) plan participants, simply reduce the maximum they can contribute, just a bit, to make up for the difference in tax revenue.

Providing parity among retirement plans will certainly not eliminate the upcoming retirement crisis, but it is an important step in the right direction.

—By Scott Hanson, special to Hanson, a certified financial planner, is a senior partner at Hanson McClain Advisors in Sacramento, California.