Disturbing Trend -- and Worse to Come

Eileen F. Toplansky
As the economy continues to worsen under Obama's "recovery" plan, more disturbing news emerges.  A record number of workers made hardship withdrawals from their 401(k) retirement plans.  In fact, "the number of workers borrowing from their accounts reached a 10-year high" and reflects "the financial stress many workers" are experiencing according to Beth McHugh, Fidelity's vice president of marketing insight.

The report was made by Fidelity Investments which administers 17,000 plans and represents 11 million participants.  The number of people initiating the hardship distributions has risen from 45,000 in 2009 to 62,000 in 2010.  Equally alarming is that "45 percent of participants who took a hardship withdrawal a year ago, took another one this year."

These 401(k) withdrawals are a result of the increasing unemployment in the country as well as companies cutting back on "overtime or overall hours" of their workers.

401(k) plans have "a provision that allows withdrawal of money from the plan" if an individual "can demonstrate ‘heavy and immediate financial need' and there is no other resource that an individual can use to meet the need."  Many employers allow hardship withdrawals only for the following reasons:


  • To pay the medical expenses of the worker, his/her spouse, or dependents
  • To pay costs related to the purchase of a principal residence
  • To pay a maximum of 12 months worth of tuition and related educational expenses for post-secondary education for an individual, his/her spouse, or dependents
  • To make payments to prevent eviction from or foreclosure on the principal residence

An employer will generally require that the employee submit a written request for a hardship withdrawal.

The disadvantages of withdrawing money from the 401(k) before it was intended include an overall reduction in the size of a person's retirement nest egg.  Moreover, the funds that were withdrawn will no longer grow tax deferred. Additionally, hardship withdrawals are generally subject to federal (and possibly state) income tax in the year the money is withdrawn.  A ten percent federal penalty tax may also apply if an individual is under 59 ½ years old. In addition, an individual may not be able to contribute to the 401(k) plan for six months following a hardship distribution.

The economic downturn has rippling effects in other ways as well. A survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in May 2009 found that "the [economic] crisis has forced both defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors and defined contribution (DC) plan sponsors to make changes to their retirement coverage and plan design."  The reexamination of offering pension benefits has resulted in "27 percent of DB plan sponsors [discontinuing] offering pension benefits for all or some employees and 21 percent have closed their plan to new participants." 

Furthermore, there is also an impact on the employer match as DC plan sponsors "reduced or eliminated employer matches as a result of the economic situation." Sally Natchek, Senior Director of Research at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans has said that "although the number of plan sponsors who have reduced or eliminated their employer match is relatively small, the number is still significant since any change tends to result in the employee lowering his or her contribution." 

Thus, as companies make less profit, they decrease their overall retirement plan contributions; this, in turn, makes it less advantageous for employees to contribute to their own retirement plans. In some cases, the number of participants completely stopping plan contributions altogether has increased.

Moreover, in a study entitled 401(k) Plans in Living Color: A Study of 401(k) Savings Disparities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups ~ The Ariel/Hewitt Study found that:

African-Americans are also more likely than the study population overall to have a loan and are more than twice as likely to take a hardship withdrawal from their 401(k) plans. Nearly two of every five African-American workers and almost a third of Hispanic workers borrowed from their retirement accounts compared to just one in five white workers. By contrast, Asian workers were the least likely to take a loan against their 401(k) plans, with less than one in five doing so. ‘These statistics are troubling because loans and withdrawals jeopardize long-term financial security to satisfy immediate needs. The impact is heightened during an economic downturn, when unemployment rises and withdrawals and loan defaults increase. We now realize this risk is magnified for African-American and Hispanic workers based on the results of our study,' said Barbara Hogg, principal at Hewitt Associates and co-leader of The Ariel/Hewitt Study. 

All these factors result in a "substantial impact on employee efforts to save for retirement." 

As Americans become more mired in financial hardship and worry, there is a domino effect which leads to even more stress and anxiety.  The short term and long term financial effects are quite serious as people worry about layoffs coupled with a diminished ability to plan for retirement.

The irony is that saving into 401(k) was supposed to be the solution for a successful retirement for Americans and this dream is evaporating for too many.

When will Congress and the president put the brakes on an economic philosophy that is bringing misery to so many American workers?

Hat Tip: John Rolls

Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmail.com
As the economy continues to worsen under Obama's "recovery" plan, more disturbing news emerges.  A record number of workers made hardship withdrawals from their 401(k) retirement plans.  In fact, "the number of workers borrowing from their accounts reached a 10-year high" and reflects "the financial stress many workers" are experiencing according to Beth McHugh, Fidelity's vice president of marketing insight.

The report was made by Fidelity Investments which administers 17,000 plans and represents 11 million participants.  The number of people initiating the hardship distributions has risen from 45,000 in 2009 to 62,000 in 2010.  Equally alarming is that "45 percent of participants who took a hardship withdrawal a year ago, took another one this year."

These 401(k) withdrawals are a result of the increasing unemployment in the country as well as companies cutting back on "overtime or overall hours" of their workers.

401(k) plans have "a provision that allows withdrawal of money from the plan" if an individual "can demonstrate ‘heavy and immediate financial need' and there is no other resource that an individual can use to meet the need."  Many employers allow hardship withdrawals only for the following reasons:


  • To pay the medical expenses of the worker, his/her spouse, or dependents
  • To pay costs related to the purchase of a principal residence
  • To pay a maximum of 12 months worth of tuition and related educational expenses for post-secondary education for an individual, his/her spouse, or dependents
  • To make payments to prevent eviction from or foreclosure on the principal residence

An employer will generally require that the employee submit a written request for a hardship withdrawal.

The disadvantages of withdrawing money from the 401(k) before it was intended include an overall reduction in the size of a person's retirement nest egg.  Moreover, the funds that were withdrawn will no longer grow tax deferred. Additionally, hardship withdrawals are generally subject to federal (and possibly state) income tax in the year the money is withdrawn.  A ten percent federal penalty tax may also apply if an individual is under 59 ½ years old. In addition, an individual may not be able to contribute to the 401(k) plan for six months following a hardship distribution.

The economic downturn has rippling effects in other ways as well. A survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in May 2009 found that "the [economic] crisis has forced both defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors and defined contribution (DC) plan sponsors to make changes to their retirement coverage and plan design."  The reexamination of offering pension benefits has resulted in "27 percent of DB plan sponsors [discontinuing] offering pension benefits for all or some employees and 21 percent have closed their plan to new participants." 

Furthermore, there is also an impact on the employer match as DC plan sponsors "reduced or eliminated employer matches as a result of the economic situation." Sally Natchek, Senior Director of Research at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans has said that "although the number of plan sponsors who have reduced or eliminated their employer match is relatively small, the number is still significant since any change tends to result in the employee lowering his or her contribution." 

Thus, as companies make less profit, they decrease their overall retirement plan contributions; this, in turn, makes it less advantageous for employees to contribute to their own retirement plans. In some cases, the number of participants completely stopping plan contributions altogether has increased.

Moreover, in a study entitled 401(k) Plans in Living Color: A Study of 401(k) Savings Disparities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups ~ The Ariel/Hewitt Study found that:

African-Americans are also more likely than the study population overall to have a loan and are more than twice as likely to take a hardship withdrawal from their 401(k) plans. Nearly two of every five African-American workers and almost a third of Hispanic workers borrowed from their retirement accounts compared to just one in five white workers. By contrast, Asian workers were the least likely to take a loan against their 401(k) plans, with less than one in five doing so. ‘These statistics are troubling because loans and withdrawals jeopardize long-term financial security to satisfy immediate needs. The impact is heightened during an economic downturn, when unemployment rises and withdrawals and loan defaults increase. We now realize this risk is magnified for African-American and Hispanic workers based on the results of our study,' said Barbara Hogg, principal at Hewitt Associates and co-leader of The Ariel/Hewitt Study. 

All these factors result in a "substantial impact on employee efforts to save for retirement." 

As Americans become more mired in financial hardship and worry, there is a domino effect which leads to even more stress and anxiety.  The short term and long term financial effects are quite serious as people worry about layoffs coupled with a diminished ability to plan for retirement.

The irony is that saving into 401(k) was supposed to be the solution for a successful retirement for Americans and this dream is evaporating for too many.

When will Congress and the president put the brakes on an economic philosophy that is bringing misery to so many American workers?

Hat Tip: John Rolls

Eileen can be reached at middlemarch18@gmail.com