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Happy Birthday, ERISA!

Thirty-six years ago today the nation’s landmark private pension law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. In honor of the workers who would benefit from the new law, the signing appropriately took place on Labor Day.

ERISA made private retirement plans fairer and helped ensure that workers received the pensions their employers had promised to give them at retirement. ERISA also created the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation – the federal pension insurance program. As a result of ERISA, most traditional pension plans are insured, adding an important layer of protection for workers and retirees should their companies go out of business.

Traditional pensions are just as important today as they were when ERISA was passed, because they provide retirees with financial security through the ups and downs of unpredictable economic times. There are, however, still many gaps in ERISA that need to be fixed, and more workers that need to be covered.

While much of the recent focus is on expanding coverage through individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 401(k)s, we must not forget about ERISA’s initial goals of providing secure retirement benefits to all workers of all economic backgrounds – from the executive to the teacher to the janitor. Increasing access to IRAs and 401(k) saving vehicles is a good thing, but these saving vehicles are not the complete solution. So far, they have not shown that they can provide sufficient or secure retirement income for most people.

Also, the trend towards more individualized saving vehicles has led to new problems for participants that now need to be addressed by the law – participants need more information about the fees they pay for and participants need access to independent investment advice.

Happy Birthday, ERISA. You’ve come along way and helped millions of workers attain secure retirement incomes. But after celebrating where you came from and what you have accomplished in the past, it is time for you to move forward and meet the future challenge of providing safe and sufficient retirement incomes to all working Americans.

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