Retirement Security

Throughout his 40 years in the U.S. Congress, Senator Tom Harkin was a strong advocate for securing the future of the aging U.S. population.

What’s Happening Now

The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement works diligently every day to advance Senator Harkin’s legacy in retirement security and make sure that every American can retire with dignity.

The Core Advisory Committee on Retirement Security identified key policy issues to be addressed through research and events. Our current work focuses on access and adequacy of retirement savings, inequality in retirement preparedness, and financial literacy. The annual retirement security symposium is tailored to address contemporary legislative policy changes and brings together researchers and policy makers. We partner with other organizations to co-host events related to retirement security, such as the Iowa Jump$tart Coalition financial literacy competitions for high-school students.

Roadmaps to Retirement: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

On December 7, 2022 The Harkin Institute hosted “Roadmaps to Retirement: Taking Stock and Looking Forward” with the U.S. Department of Labor. The roundtables focused on Social Security, disability employment, and retirement savings, and included government officials and policy experts in these areas.

The first panel discussed the federal Social Security and Disability Insurance programs and reform proposals to sustain and strengthen them. The second panel focused on individual retirement savings through employers and other programs. The panel discussed strategies to close the gaps in access and accumulation, improve account portability, and increase lifetime income options.

Videos of each panel, event fact sheets, and more information about the event can be located on the event landing page.

New Brief! Medicare vs. Medicare Advantage: Trends and Challenges for Older Adults in Navigating Medicare Enrollment Decisions 

This policy brief explores some of the challenges Medicare beneficiaries face during both the initial enrollment period as well as the annual enrollment period. While there are resources available to help beneficiaries navigate the Medicare enrollment process, research has shown beneficiaries tend to rely on advice and support from insurance brokers, family, and friends, while unbiased resources tend to be underutilized. This has led to an environment where beneficiaries feel unequipped to compare and contrast plan options, which can lead to circumstances where many beneficiaries fail to compare plans effectively and enroll in suboptimal coverage. More research is needed to better understand the challenges beneficiaries face in accessing the information and support needed to make informed decisions, and determining how existing resources can be improved upon to meet this need.  

Longevity Pooling Variable Pensions

The multi-decade transition from Defined Benefit (DB) pension plans to Defined Contribution (DC) plans (mostly 401k plans) has reduced retiree access to reliable lifetime income that eliminated retiree longevity and investment risk. The prevalent lifetime income options for retirees in a DC system include (1) a systematic drawdown of their retirement accounts or (2) the purchase of annuities whereby risk is transferred to an insurance company. While both of these strategies have some advantages, a third option may result in greater lifetime retirement income for the same amount of retirement savings. Specifically, a longevity pooling strategy can results in 26% higher benefits when compared to a systematic drawdown strategy, and 17% higher benefits when compared to an immediate annuity at age 65. 

As with any other option, there are disadvantages, specifically for small employers, and individuals who have lower life expectancy. The mandating of longevity pooling is not appropriate due to these disparities. One of its main advantages is the opportunity to leverage retirement savings to increase retirement income, which may be particularly beneficial for those who may not have significant accumulations but need to mitigate longevity risk.

Financial Literacy Requirements for High-School Students: An Update on State Legislative Activity and Requirements for Graduation

Financial literacy is recognized as an essential skill in our complex world, and the last couple of decades have seen significant changes to state K-12 financial education standards. This policy brief provides an update of the current standards by state and the coursework required to meet the standards and concludes with a brief summary of studies evaluating the impact of the state requirements on financial outcomes.

Closing the Retirement Savings Gap

Half of U.S. employees do not participate in a retirement savings program in their workplace. Part-time and low-wage employees, and those employed by small businesses and in service occupations, have the lowest access and participation rates. This brief examines the role of state retirement savings programs in addressing this problem.

Along with introducing and supporting bills to protect retirees, Sen. Harkin served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). He worked to reduce the $7.7 trillion (as of 2015) retirement deficit by strengthening the two-tiered system of public retirement and private pensions. Highlights of Sen. Harkin’s work in retirement security include:

Protecting Public Retirement Plans
In the 1990s, 2002, and 2005, Sen. Harkin helped lead the fight against Social Security privatization and sponsored legislation to strengthen the system and expand benefits, including the Strengthening Social Seucrity Act of 2013, which would prepare a Consumer Price Index for Elderly Consumers (CPI-EC) and amend the Social Security Act to use CPI-EC for computation of cost-of-living increases in old-age, survivors, and disability insurance benefits.

Strengthening Private Retirement Plans
In 2006, Sen. Harkin passed legislation that prevents companies from dramatically eroding the pensions of older, long-serving employees in complicated pension plan conversions. He also worked with the Obama Administration to promote regulations to ensure workers and employers better understood the fees charged in 401(k) plans.

In 2014, Sen. Harkin advocated for the Universal, Secure, and Adaptable (USA) Retirement Fund, which would minimize the risk to employers and make retirement funds more accessible for citizens.

Sen. Harkin has largely focused on increasing transparency and amending the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). He introduced the Cooperative and Small Employer Charity Pension Flexibility Act, which was continued in 2013 by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) as the Charity Pension Flexibility Act of 2013. It exempts co-ops and charities from some pension plan rules that would restrict their ability to continue community-based, defined benefit, multiple-employer pension (CSEC) plans.

Sen. Harkin also worked with the Defined Contribution Fee Disclosure Act of 2009, which would amend the ERISA to ensure fiduciaries disclose adequate information to their participants and beneficiaries and also require the Secretary of Labor to annually publish data on plan investment options, audit a sample of individual account plans, and recommend ways to simplify employee pension plan reporting and disclosure requirements.

Finally, Sen. Harkin was also involved in the Pensions Benefits Protection Acts of 2002 and 2003, which amended ERIS and IRS codes with respect to pension benefits of employees in either single-employer or multi-employer defined benefit plans, prohibiting forced conversions of certain defined benefit plans to cash balance plans.

As chair of the HELP committee during the negotiation of the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Harkin has championed the right for all citizens with public and private insurance to access life-saving treatments. Sen. Harkin also made prescription medications more affordable in Iowa, saving Medicare beneficiaries more than $120 million on prescriptions. For this work, Sen. Harkin was named a Retirement Security Superhero in 2011 by the Pension Rights Center. He also scored 100 percent on senior issues in a rating system by the the Alliance for Retired Americans.

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