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Americans need a `toaster IRA'

September 26, 2006|Dalton Conley | DALTON CONLEY is chairman of New York University's sociology department and an advisor to the Aspen Institute's Initiative on Financial Security.

IF YOU ARE OLD enough, you might remember when banks offered customers a free toaster if they opened a savings account. If you are on the younger side, you may have seen advertisements for a free iPod or even $50 cash back for new customers. Banks know that establishing the financial relationship is key and that, once you have been reeled in, they can get you to maintain an account as well as cross-market other products.

With a net negative private savings rate for much of the last decade, Americans need that proverbial toaster now more than ever if we hope to return to being a savings society.

As in healthcare, the biggest problem for American savings is coverage. Almost half of U.S. workers do not enjoy access to a retirement savings plan as part of their benefits package, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So we need to look beyond an employer-based retirement savings system if we are to raise the savings rate. This is especially the case in this era of frequent job-changing.

The hard part of saving, everyone knows, is being able to forget about all the other seemingly endless needs and wants that arise each pay cycle and, instead, squirrel away part of our check. Those in the middle and working class have it particularly rough in this regard. They have more financial pressures, and they frequently don't have an employer who is willing to match savings with company funds.

Although just more than half the full-time labor force works for an employer that offers a pension plan, for those in the bottom fifth in income, the figure is below 30%.

In fact, H&R Block recently conducted an experiment in which one group of income-tax filers was offered a 50% match to divert some of their tax refund to an individual retirement account. Only 14% took the company up on its offer (though this figure was several-fold higher than those who were offered no match or a smaller one).

This relatively low figure may dumbfound some economists as irrational. But it makes complete sense to sociologists. Much of Block's clientele are folks who can barely make ends meet on a day-to-day basis. Plus, they are uncertain about the future, and rightly so. Who knows how long they will hold onto their present jobs in an age of employment instability. Who knows if they will even live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their IRA. They may be figuring that $500 in hand now is a lot more valuable than $750, plus compounded interest, 20 or 30 years in the future.

But if it is true that future uncertainties combine with the financial stresses of today to put the squeeze on lower-income families' savings, then there is a silver lining, a way to provide these families an easy savings mechanism over the long haul: no-money-down, long-term matches.

This is how it would work. Instead of having to make repeated "savings decisions" to fork over my tax refund year after year in order to qualify for a saver's credit (under the current IRS policy) or an IRA match (under the Block experiment or a similar policy), I would agree to set aside future wages -- say 3% annually for 15 years. In return, I get a $1,000 initial deposit into my IRA, and I get a 50% match for that 3% over the course of the next decade and a half.

The key is that the government would be asking low-income savers to commit to squirreling away future earnings, not current tax refunds (as compared to the H&R Block experiment or the current U.S. saver's credit). This commitment structure gives them something now, and they pay later.

If the "toaster IRA" plan sounds familiar, it should. To anyone with a 401(k), that is. Most people who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan only have to check a box once, usually when they first qualify for benefits, and then never think about saving again. Only if they actively opt out do they stop saving. And statistics show that very few people opt out once they opt in.

Thus, the Pension Protection Act passed in August takes a step in the right direction by encouraging (though not requiring) companies to make 401(k) deductions the default upon employment unless a participant does the paperwork to withdraw.

But for the increasing numbers of Americans who are self-employed, unstably employed or who work for a company that does not offer a 401(k), we need to create the same structure of savings.

The "toaster IRA" would do exactly that -- providing a mechanism by which those who don't have the option of a 401(k) at work can check a box once and save for years.

This IRA should garner appeal on both sides of the aisle. Republicans have long desired private savings accounts for all Americans. Democrats, meanwhile, want to protect Social Security and augment it for those at the bottom of the income distribution. The "toaster IRA" accomplishes both goals.

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