Obama Wants Millions of Americans in His Retirement Plan. So Far He’s Got 20,000

It’s only one year in and could grow faster with a TurboTax push and inclusion in retirement savings programs being launched by states.

Barack Obama

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

If myRA, President Obama’s signature retirement plan, were a private-sector startup, it would probably be getting some heat from its venture capital backers right about now.

Two years after the president used his State of the Union speech to direct the Treasury Department to “create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings plan” and a year after its national rollout, the myRA program has a long way to go to help the millions of Americans that a White House blog about the program envisions.

The tally: 20,000 myRA accounts have been opened, with assets of about $17 million. 

The starter retirement account is designed for low- and moderate-income Americans without access to workplace retirement savings programs. It has no fees that could gobble up the small amounts invested and holds funds in a new Treasury security created for the program. Those retirement savings bonds pay a small amount of interest and are guaranteed not to lose money. 1 It's basically a Roth IRA, in which you save with after-tax money and have much greater access to your funds without paying penalties than in tax-advantaged savings plans such as 401(k)s.

Treasury faces a challenge here. Its target market is consumers who haven't saved and aren't necessarily looking to.

David John, of the Public Policy Institute of AARP, frames the slow start as positive. "What Treasury has done is make sure the program works—the computer interface, the investment activities, and so on—before operating on a huge scale," John said. "Slow and careful growth is actually far superior to huge exponential growth that ends up breaking the website." 

More than a third of U.S. private-sector workers have no access to a pension or 401(k)-style plan on the job, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Bloomberg story observed, and the least likely to have the opportunity are young workers and Latinos. Even when a plan is available, workers may not take advantage of it; more than half of employees aren’t saving for retirement at work. 

The 20,000 Americans who have signed up for a myRA (stands for My Retirement Account) seem to fit the program’s mission of reaching first-time savers. Most of the myRA account holders make contributions of $50 to $100 at a time.

“We’re seeing just as many individuals in their 20s and 30s as we are in their 40s and 50s,” said Richard Ludlow, executive director of the myRA program. "When you think of the fact that one in three working Americans [hasn't] started saving at all, that leaves plenty of people who are getting a late start."

Treasury didn't respond to a question about first-year signup projections, but Ludlow said in an e-mail, "We are encouraged by the growth of the program so far. We’re seeing people who a year ago weren’t saving for retirement because they were turned off by fees, minimum requirements, or the complexity of other investment options. Today they’re saving for retirement on a regular basis."

After a limited pilot program with a small number of employers, myRA went national a year ago this November. The pilot’s approach was to have employers, including the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, promote the voluntary savings program and allow workers to set up direct deposit accounts with myRA.

Since then, the focus has shifted from employers to individuals. Treasury, which promotes myRA on irs.gov and other high-traffic government websites, says the real growth came during last year’s tax filing season. That's when TurboTax and TaxAct experimented with limited promotion of the accounts with taxpayers using their software as part of the Free File Alliance. 2 In 2015, the free tax-service program was available for taxpayers who wanted to e-file and had adjusted gross income of $62,000 or less.   

Last year, Treasury approached Intuit, parent of TurboTax, about joining a collaboration that Intuit had going on a tax-time savings experiment called Refund to Savings (R2S). It's an experiment being done with researchers and academics from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis and Duke University, whose Dan Ariely is part of the effort. The goal is to use tax time as an opportunity to spark savings. Treasury wanted to test interest in the myRA program in general and also in funding it at tax time. 

“The program had tremendous signups during tax filing season, and we’re doubling down on that this year,” Ludlow said.

Last year it took multiple clicks to get to myRA's website from TurboTax. This year there will be a direct link to myRA on the MyTurboTax page that all commercial customers see when they work on their returns or check for their refunds. That means it could reach more than 30 million sets of taxpaying eyeballs. It will be promoted during the entire late January to mid-April tax season; it was promoted for a shorter period last year.  

TaxAct is also doing more with myRA this year. It included the program in an interview that guides users through its tax form and late in the season added another reference to myRA after filers completed their returns. "The Treasury was pleased with the increased traffic to the myRA website as a result of our inclusion of myRA after the return was completed," said a TaxAct spokesperson in an e-mail.

This year there will again be a mention of myRA in the preparation process as well as after filing. TaxAct is running an educational campaign about saving for retirement, with myRA "a core component," said the spokesperson. 

A newer initiative is to have myRA as an offering in state retirement savings programs. The legislation behind the small business retirement marketplaces in Washington state and New Jersey, which will be launched in 2017, says myRA will be one of the savings options. Several other states, including California and Oregon, are considering myRA as a stable-value option in plans that would require small employers that don't offer retirement plans to auto-enroll workers in Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs, that make payroll deductions, said the AARP's John. 

For now, myRA's biggest impact may be in starting a new conversation about savings.

"It was a way for the administration to talk about the importance of coverage," said Karen Friedman of the Pension Rights Center. It was also a step to take while President Obama tried to make his automatic-IRA proposal a reality.

The step has been taken, and raising awareness of retirement's rigors and requirements is an important act in itself. But unless a lot more people open myRA accounts, the program's impact on America's retirement savings shortfall will remain a rounding error.

(Updates first paragraph to refine comparison.)

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