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Workers Lacking 401ks Need a Solution

Although COVID-19 has exposed alarming gaps in a health insurance system that revolves around the employer, the Affordable Care Act is one potential solution for workers who lack the employer coverage.

There is nothing equivalent on the retirement side, however.

Many workers between ages 50 and 64 are in jobs that provide neither health insurance nor a retirement savings plan. But, in contrast to the health insurance options available to them, “no retirement sav­ing vehicle appears effective in helping older workers in nontraditional jobs set aside money for retirement,” concluded a new analysis of workers in these nontraditional jobs.

Nontraditional workers who want to save for retirement are left with two options: their spouse’s 401(k) savings plan or an IRA operated by a bank, broker or financial firm.

A spouse’s 401(k) hasn’t been an effective fallback for a couple of reasons. First, a substantial number of the workers who lack their own 401(k)s are not married. And second, if they are married to someone with a 401(k), they’re not any better off. The researcher found that married people currently contributing to 401(k)s do not save more to compensate for the spouse without a 401(k), reinforcing other research showing these couples don’t save enough for two.

The other option – an IRA – is open to everyone. But only a small fraction of Americans currently are saving money in IRAs, and most of them already have a 401(k). So IRAs, in practice, aren’t doing much for the people who need the help: workers who lack employer benefits.

Some state governments, out of concern for their residents’ retirement prospects, have established automatic IRAs. These programs require employers who don’t offer a retirement plan to enroll their employees in the state-designed IRA, giving them the ability to opt out.

While these auto-IRAs have potential, just eight states have approved the programs to date. Only three programs are up and running, though one is in California, the largest state.

The federal government has also initiated various savings programs over the years, but they’ve had minimal impact.

Given the large gap in our employer-based retirement system, the researcher concludes that the mandatory auto-IRA seems like the most promising solution.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

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