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Abstract

Cohort Changes in Social Security Benefits and Pension Wealth
Chichun Fang, Charles Brown and David Weir
WP 2016-350

We utilize three sets of data resources—the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), linked Social Security earnings records of the HRS respondents, and publicly available pension plan descriptions—to study pension wealth accumulations among the recent HRS cohorts. We document the trends in pension wealth over time and across cohorts during a period in which the economic consequences of the Great Recession were significant. However, given that pension wealth of many respondents were imputed in earlier waves due to the lack of information about pension plan provisions, there is the question of how much of the changes in pension wealth should be attributed to errors in imputation. The recently available pension plan descriptions from private employers’ Form 5500 filings and public employers’ websites, which improve the respondent-plan linkage over what was available in previous waves, allow us to examine this exact question. In particular, we show that the newly available sets of information not only reduce the need for imputation, but also enable us to identify the plans not reported by HRS respondents in the survey and the retirement wealth associated with these plans. Finally, we also test the validity of the earnings projection methods used to produce Social Security and pension wealth estimates in the HRS, and we end our report with a discussion over the pros and cons among the projection methods.

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