Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Gaps in Retirement Knowledge among Older Adults: What Do We Know?

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Luisa R. Blanco is a professor of public policy and economics at Pepperdine University, NBER Research Economist, and co-director of the analysis core for the UCLA Resource Center on Minority Aging Research Center for Health Improvement of Minority Elderly.

Ron D. Hays is a distinguished professor in the UCLA Department of Medicine, an affiliated adjunct researcher at the RAND Corporation, and director of the analysis core for the UCLA Resource Center on Minority Aging Research Center for Health Improvement of Minority Elderly.

Recent research has documented important racial, ethnic, and gender differences on retirement account ownership in the United States. For example, retirement account ownership is more common for White (54%) than Black (37%) or Hispanic (34%) adults.  In addition, men (48%) are more likely than women (43%) to have a retirement account. Moreover, close to half (48%) of  White adults believe that their retirement savings are on track, versus only one-quarter of Black and Hispanic adults. And women contribute less to their retirement accounts each year, and have lower retirement account balances, than do men.

These disparities in retirement preparedness are a long-standing issue and are driven in large part by differential access to employer-provided retirement plans. As a result, some states are moving into offering state-mandated retirement plans, which should help increasing access to retirement saving plans.

The Role of Retirement Knowledge

While access to a retirement plan is important, retirement knowledge has an important role in shaping peoples’ financial decision making and their future financial wellbeing. For instance, analysts have shown that older adults’ financial literacy is positively related to their retirement wellbeing. Accordingly, retirement knowledge is one channel through which racial, ethnic and gender gaps in retirement preparedness can be addressed.

We have created the Retirement Knowledge Scale (RKS) to better understand retirement knowledge, especially among low-income English and Spanish speaking adults. This scale identifies where people are in their retirement preparedness journeys, along with the informational needs of people from distinct racial, ethnic, and gender subgroups. The RKS can also be used as a yardstick to assess the impact of programs aimed at improving retirement knowledge and preparedness.

We collected the underlying data for the RKS through an experimental module in the 2020 Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The RKS assesses several retirement knowledge domains, including: reflection about retirement plans, engagement with information related to financial planning for retirement, and evaluation of retirement preparedness. Our recent study provides preliminary evidence on the reliability and validity of the RKS. Interestingly, we found that gender differences in the RKS were larger for the evaluation scale than for the reflection and engagement scales. Similarly, differences on the evaluation scale were larger between White and Black older adults, and White and Hispanic older adults. The difference in the evaluation scale between White and Hispanic older adults was larger in magnitude (0.80 standard deviation) than between White and Black older adults (0.53 standard deviation).

We also found differences in engagement with information related to retirement planning. Women were less likely than men to engage with information on the web and discuss retirement-related issues with family and friends. Blacks were more likely than Whites to attend a workshop, while Hispanics were less likely than Whites to engage with financial professionals. These results suggest the need to make retirement knowledge more accessible to women and race/ethnic minorities.

Educational interventions that are linguistically and culturally tailored might help shrink these gaps in retirement knowledge and retirement preparedness. One example is the program YoPlaneoMiRetiro (i.e. I plan my retirement) which was a community-based randomized controlled trial of an educational intervention to promote retirement savings among Hispanics in Los Angeles. We found that this intervention was effective, as the treatment group was 12 percentage points more likely than the control group to open a government-sponsored myRA retirement account.


While boosting retirement knowledge can increase retirement savings, better retirement preparedness also depends on enhancing access to retirement saving accounts, and peoples’ financial capability to contribute to such accounts. Programs tailored to meet the informational needs of women and race/ethnic minorities would likely help ensure a more secure retirement for all. Additionally, analysts will need to devote more attention to measuring racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in retirement knowledge and preparedness. The RKS can be helpful not only in detecting these knowledge gaps, but also in informing us where these knowledge gaps are greatest.

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