TIME Retirement

The Problem With President Obama’s ‘MyRA’ Savings Accounts

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Expanding savings opportunities makes sense. But a big issue is whether people have the means to use them.

To better enable Americans to save for retirement, President Obama said he would order a new “starter” savings plan called MyRA geared at low-income households. It’s a fine idea. But as with any personal savings account, you must be able to fund it for it to matter. That may be the biggest problem with the program.

Little is known about these new accounts. They would function like a Roth IRA, allowing savers to put in after-tax money that would then grow tax-free. They’d be available through your employer to anyone who does not have an individual retirement account or work for a company that offers a traditional pension or 401(k) plan. That comes to about 39 million households.

The big advantage is that you could open a MyRA with as little as $25 and make contributions of as little as $5, creating a regular savings opportunity that most low-income households have never had. Typically, plan administrators require $1,000 or more to open an account. MyRAs would also benefit from a no-fee structure that does not eat away at savings.

Your MyRA would also enjoy a government guarantee against loss of principal. The downside is that your money would be funneled into low-yielding Treasury securities and have little potential to grow enough to make a big dent in your personal retirement savings crisis—or that of the nation as a whole—until you have accumulated enough to roll it into a regular IRA where you might benefit from investments with greater growth potential.

Offering low-income households a place to save doesn’t really fix the big problem: they still must have the money and the discipline to take advantage. More than half of workers have less than $25,000 in savings and 28% has less than $1,000 in savings, reports the Employee Benefits Research Institute. And with the MyRA, you could take money out anytime without penalty. That would be awfully tempting the first time money gets tight.

The retirement savings plan represents an important first step,” says Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance. Still, she says, “Most Americans are not able to plan for their futures because they are trying to deal with their most immediate needs, like paying their rent and keeping their lights on.”

The new accounts call to mind the so-called “catch-up” provision enabling savers past age 50 to put away an extra $5,500 in their 401(k) each year. That’s a fine idea too, but since its adoption in 2001 only the relatively well to do have used it. Let’s face it: Not many folks have an extra $5,500 lying around.

Only 13% of those eligible have made the extra contributions, according to an analysis of data provided by Fidelity Investments. That’s largely because regardless of age almost no one even contributes the maximum $17,500—already a lot of money to take out of your budget each year. For the vast majority, the extra $5,500 has proven to be irrelevant, concludes the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

So let’s not pretend that MyRAs will save our collective retirement dreams. They give more people more opportunity to save, and you cannot argue with that. But for these accounts to make a real difference, the folks they are meant to help most will need extraordinary willpower.

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