MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

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Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

MONEY Debt

Have You Conquered Debt? Tell Us Your Story

Have you gotten rid of a big IOU on your balance sheet, or at least made significant progress toward that end? MONEY wants to hear your digging-out-of-debt stories, to share with and inspire our readers who might be in similar situations.

Use the confidential form below to tell us about it. What kind of debt did you have, and how much? How did you erase it—or what are you currently doing? What advice do you have for other people in your situation? We’re interested in stories about all kinds of debt, from student loans to credit cards to car loans to mortgages.

Please also let us know where you’re from, what you do for a living, and how old you are. We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.

TIME Congress

The Tricky Gimmick Congress Will Use to Fund Your Highways

Congress pays for a 10 month fix now by threatening greater deficits later.

On Monday night the White House endorsed the House Republicans’ plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund—which finances highways, roads and bridges—alive for the next 10 months, saving about 700,000 jobs. While the bill will bring the Transportation Department program back from the brink of a crisis, it uses an accounting trick known as “pension smoothing” to pay for it. Here’s a guide on why the short-term revenue raiser is no good for the long haul.

What is pension smoothing and why should I care about it?

Pension smoothing raises money for the government in the short term in exchange for increasing the debt over the long term. By reducing pension contribution requirements, pension smoothing temporarily increases companies’ taxable income to raise revenue for the government. But over the long-term, companies will be on the hook to contribute more to their pension funds, lowering tax revenue. Some conservatives, including fellows at the Heritage Foundation and Keith Hennessy, a senior White House economic advisor under President George W. Bush, have warned that pension smoothing increases the risk of a taxpayer funded bailout of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government insurance company that protects pensioners from risk in their private plans.

Does anyone like it?

Congress in the past has turned to the tactic in dire situations (see next question) because it is pro-employer and a revenue raiser in the short-term. Since the Congressional Budget Office scores bills in 10-year windows, supporters of the House and Senate bills to save the Highway Trust Fund can avoid questions about raising deficits in the long-term.

It’s no one’s ideal revenue raiser. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, told TIME last week he’s “not real happy about pension smoothing,” but still “dedicated” to passing this year’s fix. On Tuesday, reporters asked House Speaker Boehner at a press conference why he would support pension smoothing, which Republicans decried earlier this year as a gimmick when Democrats wanted to use it to fund an emergency unemployment insurance extension.

“These are difficult decisions in difficult times in an election year,” said Boehner. “It is a solid piece of legislation that will solve the problem in the short-term. The long-term problem is still there and needs to be addressed.”

Several outside think tanks and media organizations have announced their opposition to pension smoothing, including the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the editorial board of the Washington Post, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Has pension smoothing been used before?

In 2012, Congress first turned to the revenue-raising gimmick to fill another transportation funding shortfall. Last year, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) included it as part of a failed proposal to repeal an Obamacare provision and end the government shutdown. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans tried to use it to extend unemployment insurance. Now it will be used to save the Highway Trust Fund from insolvency.

What are the alternatives?

A month ago, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill to raise the federal gas tax (currently around 18 cents a gallon), which hasn’t been changed since 1993 and is the main source of financing the Highway Trust Fund. The Corker-Murphy bill would address the cash-strapped program by increasing the tax by 6 cents in each of the next two years and then index the rate to inflation. Besides the Corker-Murphy bill, Congress could tax drivers on how many miles they drive and communities could set up more tollbooths. Other potential long-term solutions are in the works but unlikely to pass this year.

MONEY Student Loans

WATCH: Why Illinois is Suing Over Student Loans

Illinois is suing debt consolidation companies for allegedly fraudulent student loan practices.

MONEY Divorce

The 7 Biggest Money Mistakes That Divorcing Women Make

Divorcing couple arguing
Hybrid Images—Getty Images/Cultura RF

A financial planner flags the costly errors women commonly make when a marriage breaks up.

Divorce, in my experience, is about two things: children and money.

The courts in most states typically will prioritize children’s interests first and foremost. Courts will also protect children’s entitlements by enforcing child support.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a comparable authority that protects a divorcing spouse’s financial needs. The law simply mandates a fair and reasonable financial outcome.

And beware: Dividing marital property is almost always a one-shot deal, for better or worse. Simply thinking that your outcome is unfair is not enough to try to reopen your judgment. To successfully appeal a division of property, you have to clear a very high bar: You have to prove that the divorce court made a mistake when considering the facts of the divorce or applying the divorce laws in your state to the case. Alternatively, you have to prove fraud or duress.

Over the course of years working with divorced and divorcing spouses, I’ve found some common financial mistakes that women make that threaten their financial security.

I’ve listed the mistakes here so you can be forewarned. Let me add a word of caution, though. It’s not enough to know that these issues can be a problem. You may feel as though you can handle them on your own. But with many of them, it is crucial you seek expert financial advice.

  1. Trading off part of the financial settlement you’re entitled to in exchange for securing child custody or greater visitation time.
  2. Underestimating your financial needs and assuming you can reduce your budget without consideration of the proportion of fixed overhead expenses.
  3. Believing in the “lawyer knows best” myth and letting your attorney dictate what your goals are and what your best short- and long-term outcomes are. You must be knowledgeable and responsible for your own financial security.
  4. Deciding financial issues one at a time and neglecting the interaction of factors such as income taxes, capital gains taxes, investment risk, inflation, and transferability of assets. All parts move like pieces in a puzzle and affect each other; they fall into place when you understand the comprehensive picture.
  5. Failing to adequately “insure” (that is, make enforceable) financial provisions of a settlement. If your spouse becomes disabled or dies, you may lose your support. You must protect your rights to your financial entitlements via life insurance on the payor.
  6. Failing to address unsecured debts or develop strategies for paying them off before your divorce is final. Unlike divorce — which is governed by state law — credit card debts and commercial loans are governed by federal law. Creditors do not care if your ex-spouse fails to pay off your debt as ordered in your settlement agreement. It is still your debt.
  7. Not planning, before the divorce is finalized, how to handle post-divorce financial issues such transferring pension benefits, securing health insurance, and changing ownership of accounts.

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Vasileff received the Association of Divorce Financial Planners’ 2013 Pioneering Award for her public advocacy and leadership in the field of divorce financial planning. Vasileff is president emeritus of the ADFP and is a member of NAPFA, FPA, and IACP. She is president and founder of Divorce and Money Matters, serving clients nationwide from Greenwich, Conn. Her website is www.divorcematters.com.

MONEY credit cards

The One Credit Card You Need to Ease Pain at the Pump This Summer

paying for gas
The right credit card can provide an antidote to pain at the pump. Ana Abejon—Getty Images

You can get as much as 5% back if you swipe it right.

If you’ll be spending part of this July 4th weekend in the car—whether that’s for a day trip to the beach or a 500-mile drive to visit the in-laws—be prepared to pay more at the pump this year than last. A gallon of regular gasoline sits at $3.70, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or about 9% higher than in 2013.

Those in the know, however, will be able to get a discount that mitigates the price escalation. How, you ask? With a cash back rewards card that gives them some extra juice at the gas station.

The picks that follow can get you up to 5% back on your purchase at the pump. You’ll notice something about these selections: None of them are gas-station-branded cards. The ones below offer more flexibility and more money back.

If you want to get the most money back possible…

We at Money are pretty big fans of the class of credit cards that offer 5% cash back in rotating categories. Within the category, both the Chase Freedom and Discover It offer 5% at the pump from July to September on the first $1,500 spent. That means if you spend $250 a month on gas, you’ll end up saving almost $40.

If you’re planning a cross-country road trip, it might pay to sign up for both. The Freedom and It cards are fee-free, so there’s no downside to doubling up.

But if you’re only planning on getting one, go for the Chase Freedom, which offers a $100 sign-up bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months, says CreditCardForum.com’s Ben Woolsey.

If you’d rather have an all-purpose card…

Managing a number of credit cards for specific categories can be daunting for some consumers. If that’s you, check out solid cash back cards that offer good rewards throughout the year. BankAmericard Cash Rewards holders, for instance, earn 3% on the first $1,500 spent at gas stations the entire year without having to pay an annual fee. There’s also a $100 sign-up bonus once you spent $500 in the first three months.

Also consider Money’s Best Credit Card winner American Express Blue Cash Preferred. While this card comes with a $75 fee, you receive 3% back at gas stations in addition to a $150 sign-up bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Where it comes out ahead of the BankAmericard is if you’ll also use it at the supermarket, since the best feature of Blue Cash Preferred is the 6% cash back you get on the first $6,000 spent on groceries.

TIME

Unemployed and in Debt, Young Americans Ask Congress for Help

Five years after the end of the Great Recession, America's young adults are still facing economic challenges.

For many millennials, the future looks bleak. “We don’t just face dreams that are deferred, we face dreams that are destroyed,” Emma Kallaway, executive director of the Oregon Student Association, told the Senate Subcommittee on Economic Policy Wednesday. But if they were hoping for answers from Congress, Kallaway and other young adults across America facing frustrations with student loan debt and the sluggish job market will have to wait.

Senate Democrats convened the subcommittee hearing entitled “Dreams Deferred: Young Workers and Recent Graduates in the U.S. Economy” to highlight youth unemployment and heavy student loan debt after Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) student loan bill stalled in the Senate earlier this month. Warren’s bill would have allowed an estimated 25 million people with long-existing student loan debt to refinance at lower interest rates.

Just 63.4% of youth aged 18-29 are employed, Keith Hall, senior research fellow at George Mason University, reported in his testimony. The unemployment rate of workers under the age of 25 is 13.2%, more than twice the overall rate of unemployment.

As joblessness remains high, the cost of college continues to rise, compounding already hard-to-manage debt levels for many young Americans. Student debt in the U.S. now tops $1.2 trillion, according to Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of the non-profit group Young Invincibles.

“It sounds like perfect storm in a way,” said subcommittee chair Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) of the snowball effects of the Great Recession on young adults.

Youth unemployment also affects overall spending in the broader economy because young adults cannot afford to move out of their parents’ house, buy big items like cars and homes, and get married. Taxpayers bear some of that burden. Youth unemployment deprives the federal government of over $4,100 in potential income taxes and Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes per 18-24 year old every year, and almost $9,900 per 25-34 year old, according to a recent study by Young Invincibles. That translates into an additional $170 of entitlement costs per taxpayer in the federal budget.

If the problem is clear, the solution is not. Witnesses at the hearing variously suggested state disinvestment in higher education, simplifying the federal aid application and repayment process, offering relief for existing borrowers, and holding institutions more accountable for providing affordable, quality credentials to graduating students.

Merkley asked the panel for their opinions on the merits of the “Pay It Forward” Guaranteed College Affordability Act, which would allow students to go to college without paying up front. Instead, students sign a contract to join an income-based repayment plan for a designated period of time after graduation. Several states are considering versions of the grant plan; Oregon signed one into law in 2013.

Although Kallaway and O’Sullivan said the plan would possibly circumvent the debt-to-income trap, both agreed it was not a long term fix. Kallaway believes the solution is to tackle the problem at the root, in high education costs, and not at the repayment level. “More affordable education upfront is what’s right,” Kallaway said. “Federal student loans should not be a form of income for the government.”

Hall believes that student debt and rising tuition are just symptoms of a larger disease. High unemployment numbers aren’t just an issue for young adults, he pointed out. The problem, he said, is a poorly functioning economy. “Until you solve this labor market problem […] this problem is not going away,” he said. “You’re going to have these continuing symptoms.”

MONEY Savings

Despite Lessons of Recession, Many Are Ill-Prepared for a Crisis

Emergency box broken
Peter Crowther—Getty Images

One in four Americans have no savings set aside for an emergency, a new survey finds.

When it comes to your finances, you need to be prepared for the unexpected: a gap between jobs, a health crisis, a leaky roof that needs to be repaired. But 26% of Americans have no savings set aside for an emergency, according to a new report from Bankrate.com.

What’s more, many of those who do have a rainy day fund have too small of one. Only 23% of Americans say they have set aside at least six months’ worth of living expenses—the commonly recommended minimum. For 24% of Americans, an emergency fund would last less than three months, the survey found; another 17% have enough money for three to five months of expenses.

Americans have been poor savers for decades, notes Bankrate.com financial analyst Greg McBride. “What did change since the recession was the recognition of the importance of emergency savings,” says McBride. “Americans know that having emergency savings is important, they know they don’t have enough, and they feel very uncomfortable about that. But despite that, they’re just not making any progress.”

These findings jibe with MONEY’s recent survey of Americans and their finances, which found that while Americans are exercising more financial restraint than they did before the recession, they still aren’t saving as much as they should.

Six in 10 told MONEY that they were trying to build their emergency savings, up from less than 25% who said the same in 2009; three-quarters reported cutting back on spending. Still, 58% wouldn’t be able to handle an unexpected $10,000 expense. Even high-income families would feel the pinch—38% of those earning more than $100,000 said they wouldn’t be able to cover a $10,000 surprise.

Similarly, the Bankrate survey found that insufficient savings crosses all income groups: Among households with incomes of $75,000 or more, only 46% have a six-month emergency reserve.

Another alarming finding: Americans age 30 to 49 are the worst off. One-third don’t have anything saved for a rainy day.

“That’s a pretty scary finding in that they are more likely to have the house, two cars, three kids, the dog,” McBride says. “They need those emergency savings more than anybody.”

The bright spot? Millennials may have learned from their elders’ mistakes. More than half—54%—have three- to five-months’ worth of expenses set aside in cash.”Young adults have had a front row seats for the recession and the anemic recovery,” says McBride. “They’ve recognized the need for emergency savings.”

Need another impetus to build up your rainy day fund? In MONEY’s recent survey on marriage and money, 25% of couples say they fight about insufficient emergency savings.

For more on budgeting and saving:

TIME Retirement

2030: The Year Retirement Ends

The real debt-and-deficit crisis facing our country isn’t national—it’s personal. A look at the coming retirement apocalypse and what we have to do to avoid it

The retirement scenario everyone wants to avoid arrives in 2030. That’s when the largest demographic group in U.S. history, the baby boomers, will have nearly depleted the Social Security trust fund. It’s also when older Generation X-ers will begin moving out of work and into their golden years.

But these won’t be the years of leisure that recent generations have known. Consider a typical 2030 retiree–an educated Gen X woman, around 65, who has worked all her life at small and midsize companies. Those firms have created most of the new jobs in the economy for the past 50 years, but only 15% of them offer formal retirement plans. Our retiree has put away savings here and there, but she’s also part of the middle class, which took the biggest wealth hit during the financial crisis of 2008. That–along with the fact that average real wages have been virtually flat for three decades, even as living costs have risen–means she has minimal savings, even less than the $42,000 that today’s average retiree leaves work with.

More than half her retirement income comes from Social Security. When you factor in health care spending, she’ll be living on only about 41% of the average national wage. Despite her best efforts to work and save, our Gen X retiree will have trouble maintaining her standard of living. She won’t be alone: the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that 50% of American retirees will be in the same boat.

In all likelihood, then, she won’t actually be retired. Like many of her peers, our Gen X-er finds herself needing a part-time job; she shares her home and many living expenses with her son, a millennial who isn’t doing so well himself. More members of his generation live with Mom and Dad than any generation before, according to the Pew Research Center, in part because they came of age in the post-financial-crisis era, when wages were stagnant and unemployment high. (If you enter the workplace during such cycles, your income never catches up.) As he struggles to pay down student loans and save enough money to move out, there’s very little left over–which means he’s on course for an even less secure retirement than his mother.

Boomers scrambling to get by on a minimal income. Gen X-ers who can’t afford to stop working. Millennials staring at a bleak financial future. This is the retirement apocalypse coming at us fast–unless we do something about it now. As with other big, slow-moving crises (climate change, health care, the quality of education), it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency over retirement security. But in the past few years, the financial meltdown and its aftermath have thrown the problem into sharper relief. Now, in a retirement landscape that has witnessed few big innovations since the Reagan Administration and the rise of the 401(k) account, we’re suddenly seeing a range of new ideas.

Controversially, many of the new approaches call for a greater role for government after three decades of pushing responsibility for retirement onto individuals. They include everything from President Obama’s MyRA plan, which would let some individuals save in a fund administered by the U.S. Treasury, to a spate of state-run programs. The most intriguing–and hotly debated–approach is taking shape in California, where state senator Kevin de León has pushed through a bill that aims to guarantee every Californian working in the private sector a living wage in retirement, a plan some experts say could become a new model for the nation.

Advocates say the government role will help recruit more people to save and can keep costs low with efficiencies of scale derived from all those participants–much as some big public-employee plans do. But the reforms are being challenged by everyone from small-government conservatives, alarmed by a growing public role, to financial-services companies, which fear that government-run plans will put money into simple index funds rather than the managed funds that generate more lucrative fees for the industry.

Regardless of the eventual solution, few dispute that we’re on a dire course at present. Experts estimate that half of Americans are at risk of becoming economically insecure in retirement. Our system is in desperate need of a fix. “We’re facing a tsunami,” says Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who has proposed his own program. “And we’ve got to deal with it–now.”

GROUND ZERO

If there’s one place in America that best captures the complex mix of economic, social and demographic trends that play into the looming retirement crisis, it’s California. Like many other national stories, this one bubbled up early in the Golden State. Long before Detroit went bust, the state was in the news for its public-pension troubles, including massive bankruptcies in Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino. California is also emblematic of all the worrisome trends: it has more retirees, young people without benefits, poor people, immigrants and small and midsize businesses than most states. In other words, it checks all the boxes of groups most at risk of an insecure retirement.

Yet the Golden State is also coming up with some of the most forward-thinking ideas. De León’s approach, called the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program (CSC), was signed into law in 2012 by Governor Jerry Brown. It aims to combine the best of old-style defined-benefit plans (traditional pensions that guarantee workers a set level of yearly income in retirement) with the flexibility and mobility of a 401(k). CSC will cover workers in California who don’t currently have access to formal retirement savings via their work. “I’m a big fan,” says Monique Morrissey, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute who recently testified before Congress on retirement security. “It’s probably the farthest along of all the retirement-reform ideas in terms of practical implementation.”

Details of the plan, which will launch in early 2016, are now being hashed out in consultation with a variety of industry and academic experts. It’s likely that CSC will use behavioral nudges to get as many eligible people as possible to participate–for instance, by making enrollment automatic unless a worker opts out, rather than requiring a sign-up to opt in.

Participants in CSC would sock away at least 3% of their income, most likely in a conservative index fund, in which money is invested in all the stocks listed in a specified index. For instance, in an S&P 500 fund, the pooled money is invested in all 500 stocks in that index. Index funds are considered a simple way to ensure that investors see the same return as the overall stock market–and they’re cheaper too, since index funds don’t employ stock-picking wizards and charge the related fees.

The possibility of more workers putting savings into such low-cost funds may help explain why CSC is getting resistance from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), a trade group for securities firms and asset managers. But a version of this plan has already been enacted for nonprofit workers in Massachusetts, and plans similar to CSC are being discussed by governors and legislatures in states including New York, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota and Arizona. If successful, CSC and plans like it would put the government deeper in the business of guaranteeing retirement security. They would also underscore the fact that a 100% private, do-it-yourself system isn’t working–at least for many Americans.

De León, the force behind CSC, was raised by his Mexican mother, who died of cancer at 54, and his aunt. Both women worked as maids in various affluent California homes. De León says he became focused on retirement security last year when his aunt, who is 74, fell ill and couldn’t work.

“She was still cleaning homes in La Jolla when she had a stroke. She had no IRA, no 401(k), nothing. She had been working essentially freelance,” says de León. “I became her 401(k). I had to give her money because her Social Security didn’t suffice for her basic expenses, like housing, food, medication, a bus pass.”

De León’s district, in downtown Los Angeles, is home to many people in a similar fix. A melting pot that includes the city’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia and other ethnic enclaves, it’s full of small entrepreneurs, immigrants and freelancers who work not at big blue chips but in the less secure firms and “gig economy” that’s increasingly becoming the norm in America.

STILL WORKING

Paula Dromi is one of those workers. A 75-year-old social worker, Dromi lives in a small three-bedroom bungalow near de León’s office in downtown L.A. with one of her two grown sons (who moved back to save money after a period of unemployment) as well as a friend. Both housemates help Dromi pay major living expenses. Her Social Security plus the money she makes working as a part-time freelance therapist amounts to about $1,700 a month. But her home insurance, property taxes and mortgage alone are nearly $1,500. Both she and her journalist husband (who died in 2000) saved for retirement, but years of co-payments on medical bills for his brain illness depleted both his $35,000 IRA and their $30,000 in savings.

Dromi was left with her $60,000 IRA–lower than it might have been because she changed jobs often and, like many other women, took time off to raise children–and her home, which is valued at $442,000. She could always sell the house. But if she did, she says, she’d have to move out of L.A. because of its lack of cheaper housing. Instead she has pieced together a multigenerational home and a freelance work life that she hopes she can maintain indefinitely. “I’ll be working another 20 years, assuming I can,” says Dromi.

In a way, Dromi is lucky. She has a home that she can share and is healthy enough to work, at least for the time being. But the fact that an educated professional who saved and had health insurance can end up scraping to get by in retirement underscores how fragile the system is.

That fragility is in large part due to the massive shifts in the American retirement system since 1980. That’s when the 401(k) plan was invented, by a benefits consultant working on a cash-bonus scheme for bankers, who had the idea to take advantage of an obscure provision in the tax code passed two years earlier, allowing for deferred compensation of individuals to be matched by their company.

The result was the 401(k), a savings account that lets employees contribute pretax income from their paycheck (sometimes with employers matching some or all of the amount) but, unlike the traditional pension, does not promise a specific regular payment upon retirement. Holders of 401(k)s amass a hopefully growing fund from which they can draw money when they retire.

This system is largely based on accident and anomaly–401(k)s were never meant to replace traditional pensions as a primary retirement vehicle, but they have. We’ve ended up with a bifurcated system that has the upper third of society doing better and everyone else doing worse. Statistics show that people retiring now who have been invested in 401(k)s rather than traditional defined-benefit pensions are less well off than those who came before them. That’s because 401(k)s typically work best for people who work for big companies, with salaries that allow them to put away double-digit percentages of their income, and who have either the sophistication to choose their own asset allocations well or a benefits department that offers up smart options and auto-enrolls them in the plan.

The problem is, most Americans don’t fall within that group. Only 64% of private-sector workers have any kind of formal retirement plan, and fewer than half sign up for one. What’s more, the number of people with access to plans is declining; part-time and freelance workers usually don’t qualify. With the situation becoming increasingly dire, there is a drumbeat to reform the 401(k) system. Options include making enrollment mandatory, providing state-sponsored IRAs (or even national ones like Obama’s MyRA, which is based on the highly successful, low-fee Thrift Savings Plan offered to federal workers) and cutting red tape and costs so that more small businesses could offer employees 401(k) plans.

But the efforts have been piecemeal and ineffectual. Some critics blame the financial-industry lobby. In a letter to the California treasurer late last year arguing against the CSC plan, SIFMA contended that such programs would “directly compete for business with a wide range of California financial-services firms” and that state money should be put not into creating universal retirement plans but into educating individuals “about the benefits of early and regular savings for retirement.”

De León responds that it’s asking a lot of many workers to navigate the complex investment choices in many private plans. Indeed, over time, passive index funds typically beat all but a handful of actively managed funds, and many individual workers don’t have access to the highest-performing vehicles.

SYSTEM REBOOT

That’s why many retirement scholars would like to see the entire system changed, starting with 401(k) plans themselves. Harkin’s bill, the USA Retirement Funds Act, aims to make it more difficult for people to borrow from 401(k)s. This “leakage,” when savers tap their retirement funds prematurely, is a big reason people come up short in retirement. Harkin’s proposal would also shift the standard payout from a lump sum to a steady income stream in retirement.

Some experts would also like to see the government force more workers to save. For those who have access to 401(k)s, “Congress should make automatic enrollment mandatory, and plans should invest people in low- or no-fee index funds,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. She and others also suggest establishing third-party administrators that would run the programs for groups of companies–bringing together more workers, creating better economies of scale, lowering fees and raising returns.

Governments are, of course, a possible candidate to run such programs–that’s essentially what de León is proposing to do for workers who are currently not covered by any other plan. Critics say government has a poor track record when it comes to protecting retiree savings, citing public-employee pensions in cities like Stockton, Calif. De León counters that unlike public-pension plans that promised 8% returns a year and cushy retirements, the CSC model has more modest aspirations–around 3% returns and a “livable yearly wage in retirement.”

Unfortunately, truly fixing American retirement will likely take more than even mandatory 401(k) plans and diminished expectations. Social Security reform is a subject that must be debated soon, in a real way, if we want to avoid having a generation of elderly poor. The fact that fewer than 10% of America’s elderly are currently poor largely reflects the contribution of Social Security to their income. Without it, says Pew’s Paul Taylor, author of the book The Next America, about half of people over 65 would be poor.

Beyond that, it’s probably inevitable that we’ll all be working longer. Munnell of the Center for Retirement Research points out that delaying the start of Social Security benefits from age 62 to 70 could increase monthly payouts by 76%. “Most of us are healthier and have less physically demanding jobs than our parents and grandparents,” Munnell says. “Stretching out our work lives is a sensible option.”

Changing our households to return to a once common multifamily structure, as Paula Dromi and her son have done, may be another. Taylor is hopeful that such forced communal living may actually help spark the tough political debate needed to reform entitlements and enhance retirement security while continuing to invest in our economy for the sake of the young. The portion of the population most worried about retirement are the 20- and 30-somethings who see an uncertain future as they struggle to pay off student loans and establish themselves in the work world, and perhaps lean on their parents for support. “There’s a growing sense, for all the generations, that no one has been spared and everyone is suffering to some extent,” says Taylor. “There’s also a sense that we’re all in this together–and maybe that has the potential to change this zero-sum debate.” If we’re lucky, that may help us find the way to a system in which people of all generations can retire with security and dignity.

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