PRESIDENT OBAMA put his finger on a serious problem in his State of the Union address by announcing that new “starter” retirement accounts will be made available to workers who lack access to employer-sponsored savings plans — about a third of all American workers. A fifth of those who do have access don’t take advantage of the accounts, meaning that, overall, nearly half the American workforce is not building a retirement nest egg through either traditional pensions or 401(k)-style defined contribution plans. Little wonder that most new middle-class retirees will outlive their savings, according to an analysis by Ernst & Young.
The president’s plan is fine as far it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. The Treasury Department will establish the program to provide what the administration calls MyRAs — accounts drawn automatically from payrolls that would be invested in principal-protected Treasury bonds, paying variable rates of interest. The accounts would be extremely modest. Workers could save up to $15,000 or for 30 years; and while the deposits would be safe from losses, they also wouldn’t earn much — the bonds currently yield less than 2 percent annually.
No one’s retirement would be secure for long with a $15,000 nest egg, even one that could be rolled over into an individual retirement account (IRA), as these could. The idea is simply to encourage sensible savings habits among low- to moderate-income employees, though they could opt out of the program. In the meantime, employers would face next to no costs, although they would face the slight administrative hassle of setting up a payroll deduction so workers could contribute to the accounts automatically.
That’s the best Mr. Obama could do without buy-in from Congress. For several years running, the president has proposed legislation enabling much more ambitious retirement savings plans, akin to IRAs, for employees of companies that offer no such benefits. Congress has not acted.
In the face of Washington’s paralysis, some states have started to devise their own plans. California, through legislation enacted in 2012, is studying the establishment of a savings plan known as Secure Choice, which would automatically enroll an estimated 6.3 million workers who lack access to an employer-sponsored plans in a low-risk, retirement savings program (unless they opted out). The logic is obvious: Just 45 percent of California’s private-sector employees work for companies that offer retirement savings plans.
Lawmakers in Maryland are proposing an even more ambitious step that would graft IRA-type plans onto companies that offer no retirement savings options to their employees. Workers could set aside up to $5,500 annually (or $6,500 for employees ages 50 or above), or they could opt out. But the state could make the plans attractive for workers by negotiating low fees with the financial firm it chooses to handle the accounts. As with the federal plan, there would be no significant costs for employers beyond setting up a payroll deduction system.
Some critics grouse that plenty of investment vehicles already are available for workers, including IRAs. And to be sure, the creation of something new will not help workers for whom the real problem is inadequate income, not the absence of options for savings. But providing easier or opt-out access to retirement programs is highly likely to increase savings rates, especially for middle-income workers whose employers do not now offer a plan. It’s hard to see a downside to that.