Employers Discover A Troubling Racial Split in 401(k) Plans

Ariel Capital chief executive John W. Rogers Jr., left, U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral and Charles Schwab founder Charles R. Schwab at an investment summit Thursday. A survey by the two companies found a large percentage of blacks neglecting the stock market.
Ariel Capital chief executive John W. Rogers Jr., left, U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral and Charles Schwab founder Charles R. Schwab at an investment summit Thursday. A survey by the two companies found a large percentage of blacks neglecting the stock market. (By Diane Bondareff -- Associated Press)

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By Daniel Sorid
Associated Press
Sunday, October 14, 2007

NEW YORK -- Employers have begun to find troubling racial differences within their 401(k) plans, a gap they say could leave black workers far less financially prepared for retirement than whites.

Investor surveys and research by two large employers strongly suggest that blacks participate in retirement plans at far lower rates and are much less likely than whites to invest in the stock market. An industrywide study of 401(k) plan activity by race has never been conducted.

Exelon, the country's largest operator of nuclear power plants, found this year that about 15 out of every 100 black employees did not participate in its 401(k) plan, compared with about 10 of every 100 whites. It also found that one in three black employees contributed less than 5 percent of pay to the plan, compared with just 14 percent of whites.

"We have to start addressing that now," said Andrea L. Zopp, Exelon's senior vice president of human resources. "If African Americans are not investing at the same rate, they will be behind."

McDonald's found in 2004 that half of its black store managers contributed to the company's 401(k) plan, a lower percentage than whites. The company said that by auto-enrolling store managers into the plan it has reversed the trend; today, 95 percent of black restaurant managers are plan participants.

Few employers today examine their plans in search of racial or ethnic differences, as they are required to do for discrepancies between high- and low-income workers. Fidelity Investments and Vanguard Group, two of the country's largest retirement plan operators, publish encyclopedic volumes on America's investing habits that lack any reference to race or ethnicity.

Experts attribute lower investment rates to poor instruction on financial topics in public schools, and misconceptions about the risk of stocks within parts of the black community. Employers have also been urged to tailor their messages on retirement savings to account for what some black and Latino executives say are important cultural differences. And the federal government has been urged to strengthen its national strategy for financial literacy, which has been criticized as ineffective.

A survey by the firms Charles Schwab and Ariel Mutual Funds concluded that 4 in 10 African Americans with household incomes of $50,000 or more have no money in stocks, compared to just one quarter of whites.

Ariel's survey also found blacks who enrolled in retirement plans save a median $173 a month while whites save $252. The survey was administered in June and July and has a margin of error of about 4.5 percent.

A separate survey of retirees found whites are nearly twice as likely to have $100,000 or more saved than blacks, even when education, peak income level and other factors are held constant.

"There are clear differences between blacks and whites: How we think about money, where we save and invest our money, what we do with our money, and how we're influenced as to what we do with our money," said Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Mutual Funds.

Since the 1980s, 401(k) plans have replaced traditional pensions as the preferred retirement offering among employers. This shifted the responsibility and the investment risk to employees, who are expected to contribute a portion of their paychecks before taxes. They can choose from a menu of investment options offered by their plan administrator, and some employers also match all or part of the employees' contributions.


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