The multitrillion-dollar retirement savings gap in America is a financial crisis of mind-boggling scope.
It is also a moral one.
That became clearer this week when a fast-track resolution was introduced in Congress to undermine Oregon and a handful of other states that are trying to make retirement saving easier for lower-income workers, many of them women and minorities.
This cynical effort ought to be defeated, and soundly. Congress should protect states' rights and make it easier to save - not harder.
In July, the State Treasury will begin the pilot phase of OregonSaves, which will be the nation's first state-based retirement savings plan for private-sector workers. OregonSaves is being developed in public meetings based on investment best practices, feedback and support from large and small businesses.
The important bottom line: It will help as many as 1 million Oregonian workers to start saving at their jobs.
That's vital, because research by the AARP shows that people are 15 times more likely to save - and will save more - via payroll deductions.
As state treasurer, one of my priorities is empowering Oregonians to invest in themselves. Personal responsibility is a key component to long-term financial health.
Today, the average retirement savings is an anemic $3,000. For those nearing retirement, it's $12,000. Social Security alone isn't enough to meet all of a retiree's long-term needs. The National Institute on Retirement Security estimates that the savings gap nationwide is at least $7 trillion.
A key reason for that lack of savings: About half the workforce today lacks access to a savings option at work.
That's why the 2015 Legislature authorized OregonSaves, which I was proud to help sponsor. As OregonSaves phases in, those without a work-based plan will automatically be enrolled and will invest their own money into their own accounts, unless they opt out.
The accounts will be professionally managed and will not be connected to the Public Employees Retirement System in any way.
Market research predicts that by the fifteenth year, more than 500,000 Oregonians will collectively be saving billions. Reducing retirement poverty will boost the economy and reduce the pressure for already strained tax-financed government programs.
The Asher Community Health Center in Fossil, the only medical provider in rural Wheeler County, is excited about OregonSaves.
The small business doesn't have the capacity to offer a 401(k). OregonSaves will facilitate access to a savings option without legal confusion, the costs of launching a plan, or fiduciary risk. And research shows that employees are more productive when they are more financially secure.
To underscore that there is no fiduciary risk for businesses that enroll workers, Oregon joined with other states to support a "safe harbor" rule that was approved by the U.S. Department of Labor last year. This week's congressional resolution seeks to eliminate that safe harbor at the behest of interests like financial advisors and the U.S. Chambers of Commerce.
It's puzzling that anybody would try to undercut a strategy that will help create a new culture of saving. We need more options, not less. (Some thoughtful leaders in the investment sector do believe in pro-savings ideas like OregonSaves.)
While OregonSaves won't be derailed by the resolution, removal of the safe harbor would be a step backward and add an unnecessary layer of uncertainty. That's chilling, and it's the wrong direction for Oregon and America.
The retirement crisis will not solve itself. At a time when we ought to be encouraging more saving, it is disappointing that Congress may instead prioritize the failed status quo and undercut states' abilities to forge solutions.
I'm calling on Oregon's congressional delegation to stand for the 1 million working Oregonians who don't have access to retirement savings plans and to stand for small businesses -- and to stand against this cynical resolution. I encourage every Oregonian to contact Congress and express similar alarm.
(Footnote: Our goal is to make OregonSaves simple for everyone, and we are asking for feedback to draft rules to make sure we get them right. Learn more at www.Oregon.gov/retire.)
Tobia Read, of Beaverton, is Oregon's treasurer and chair of the Oregon Retirement Savings Board.
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