Do Tax Incentives Increase 401(k) Retirement Saving? Evidence from the Adoption of Catch-Up Contributions

WP#2014-17

Abstract

The U.S. government subsidizes retirement saving through 401(k) plans with $61.4 billion in tax expenditures annually, but the question of whether these tax incentives are effective in increasing saving remains unanswered.  Using longitudinal U.S. Social Security Administration data on tax-deferred earnings linked to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the project examines whether the “catch-up provision,” which was enacted in 2001 and allows workers over age 50 to contribute more to their 401(k) plans, has been effective in increasing earnings deferrals.  Compared with similar workers under age 50, the study finds that contributions increased by $540 more among age-50-plus individuals who had approached the 401(k) tax-deferral limits prior to turning 50, suggesting that the older individuals respond to the expanded tax incentives.  For this group, the elasticity of retirement savings to the tax incentive is quite high: a one-dollar increase in the tax-deferred limit leads to an immediate 49-cent increase in 401(k) contributions.