The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid the pandemic, some people can’t afford rent; others became 401(k) and TSP millionaires

More than 7 million households are behind on rent, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, average retirement account balances reached record levels.

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Millions lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Tens of millions of Americans needed federal stimulus payments to put food on the table.

Many renters are bracing for possible eviction notices. Of all U.S. adults living in renter households, about 15 percent (almost 1 in 7) said they were behind on rent payments as of the two weeks ending May 10, according to a Census Bureau survey that aims to capture pandemic-era hardship.

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Then there is the other America, where people not only kept their jobs but were able to create more wealth for themselves despite one of the worst economic downturns in this country’s history.

The stark economic divide can be seen in the most recent quarterly retirement analysis by Fidelity Investments.

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“Despite the financial challenges caused by the continued impact of the pandemic on the global economy, average balances across more than 30 million IRA, 401(k), and 403(b) retirement accounts reached record levels,” reported Fidelity, one of the country’s largest administrators of workplace retirement accounts.

The average 401(k) balance increased to $123,900 in the first quarter of 2021, up 36 percent for the same period a year ago. The average 403(b) account balance increased to a record $107,300, which was 42 percent higher than in last year’s first quarter. The average IRA balance was $130,000, a 31 percent jump over the first quarter in 2020.

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Millionaires were created in this pandemic.

Although the number of millionaires — before taxes — is a relatively small percentage of the total number of retirement plan participants, the growth of members in this select club was staggering. The number of 401(k) millionaires increased 143 percent, hitting 365,000 in the first quarter compared to 150,000 a year earlier, according to Fidelity.

The number of millionaires investing in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), the federal government’s version of a 401(k), also saw a tremendous spike. As of March 31, there were 84,808 TSP millionaires, up from 27,212 a year ago, according to the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. Year over year, that’s an increase of 212 percent.

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Fidelity said workers’ faithful commitment to keep investing and stock market performance helped push average retirement account balances to record levels for the second consecutive quarter.

Matching contributions matter, too. In the first quarter, the average 401(k) employer contribution rate was 4.6 percent, and the average amount contributed was $1,720.

Although some hard-hit companies suspended their matching contribution at the start of the pandemic, by the first quarter of this year, companies made matching 401(k) contributions to 83 percent of employees, Fidelity said.

The most popular 401(k) match formula continues to be a 100 percent matching contribution for the first 3 percent of an employee’s contribution and then a 50 percent match for the next 2 percent.

Fidelity pointed out that many employers are designing their 401(k) and 403(b) plans to help their workers save more by using auto-enrollment. More than a third of companies automatically enroll employees into their 401(k) plan. And, the most common default savings rate for auto-enrolled employees is 3 percent. But an increasing number of companies are pushing their workers to save more by auto-enrolling them at a preset savings rate (although employees can opt out or set their own savings rate). In the first quarter, 20 percent of employees auto-enrolled employees at a 6 percent savings rate.

I read the Fidelity report and was happy for folks who have come through the pandemic unscathed financially. The analysis is something to celebrate. More people are saving for retirement. They are undaunted by the gyrations in the stock market.

Yet, I can’t help but take a pause to consider the extraordinary wealth creation of some Americans while so many others are struggling.

Worldwide it’s the same trend as here in the United States. So many people were able to prosper during the pandemic. A report earlier this year by Oxfam said the 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their coronavirus-related losses within nine months.

“For the world’s poorest people recovery could take 14 times longer; more than a decade,” the Oxfam report said. “The increase in the 10 richest billionaires’ wealth since the crisis began is more than enough to prevent anyone on Earth from falling into poverty because of the virus.”

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While we’re feeling privileged that our 401(k)s hit new highs, we ought to remember that hardship remains commonplace among the less fortunate more than a year after the pandemic began.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this column.