State governments are starting to step in to help workers save. Here's why that's a good thing.
A rare innovation in retirement saving is taking shape right now in, of all places, Illinois. In January the state became the first to okay an automatic IRA for workers at certain small businesses that don’t offer retirement plans. Those companies will be required to funnel 3% of their employees’ paychecks into a state-run Roth IRA, though workers can opt out.
It may seem surprising that Illinois is breaking ground in this area—after all, the state’s pension plans are among the worst funded in the nation. But Illinois is actually part of a broad movement. Some 30 states, including California and Connecticut, are developing similar savings programs. Says Sarah Mysiewicz Gill, senior legislative representative at AARP: “We’re reaching a critical mass of states.”
A Local Approach
Why are states taking on retirement planning? Half of private-sector employees don’t have an employer plan—a crucial tool for building a nest egg. In fact, just having access to a retirement plan through work makes a huge difference in whether you save. While 90% of those with a workplace plan have put aside money for retirement, only 20% of those without one have, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
So states will face a huge drain on their budgets as workers with no savings reach retirement and need services such as Medicaid and food assistance. “If Washington were moving faster on this, the states wouldn’t have to,” says Illinois state senator Daniel Biss, who sponsored the new IRA.
No question, Congress has long dodged addressing the looming retirement crisis; it has failed to fix Social Security or create a federal automatic IRA, which President Obama proposed again in his most recent State of the Union address. Obama did introduce the myRA last year, which will allow savers without employer plans to put away as much as $15,000 in Treasury securities. But without auto-enrollment, the myRA’s effectiveness will be limited.
The Illinois program may prove to be an appealing prototype. (First it will need approval by the Department of Labor and IRS.) Still, each state is crafting its own version. In Connecticut, the automatic IRA may be paid out as a lifetime annuity or in a lump sum. Indiana is looking at setting up a voluntary plan with a tax credit. “States are a great laboratory for experimentation,” says Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, founder of Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives.
Reason to Hope
Of course, it’s far from certain that state savings plans will make much headway: at 3%, Illinois’s minimum contribution is far below the 10% to 15% of pay that retirement experts generally recommend. And a hodgepodge of state IRAs would be less efficient and more costly than a national plan.
That said, states can sometimes get it right. State-run 529 college savings plans have helped countless families with tuition bills. The Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the national plan that has meant coverage for millions. Perhaps the states’ efforts will push retirement savings higher up the federal government’s priority list. If Illinois can lead the way on retirement, anything’s possible.