EDITORIAL: A smarter way to save for retirement in Illinois

SHARE EDITORIAL: A smarter way to save for retirement in Illinois

Illinois State Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Retirement planning in America is headed for a train wreck. More than a third of Americans who retire today will be living in or near poverty within 10 years.

That should surprise nobody. Saving for retirement is a struggle for millions of Americans when paychecks are flat and bouts of unemployment, kids’ braces and poor investment returns make money so tight.

This week, the first wave of a sensible new voluntary state program is rolling out that will encourage people whose employers don’t offer pensions or 401ks to save for retirement. We encourage folks to get on board.

The program — Illinois Secure Choice — is “opt out,” which means workers who aren’t already offered retirement-savings options through their employers automatically are enrolled in the program unless they make the decision to leave it. Experience with 401ks shows that 95 percent of people will stay in a retirement savings program if they are automatically enrolled.


How bad is our nation’s retirement picture?

• About 30 percent of retirees rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their retirement, though Social Security, after deducting Medicare payments, provides only 29 percent of their pre-retirement income.

• Americans aged 40 to 45 have saved less than 4 percent of what an average worker needs for retirement.

• One in four Americans nearing retirement doesn’t have even $1,000 saved up, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

• Just 17 years from now, 20 million to 30 million retirees are expected to be living in poverty or close to it.

• About half of the working-age families in America have less than $5,000 saved for retirement.

In a nation headed toward a disaster of underfunded retirements, a program that encourages folks to save for that day is long overdue. That’s what Illinois Secure Choice does.

People with 401ks or pensions already have a built-in way to save for retirement. But about 1.2 million Illinois citizens have neither available at work; that’s the number of workers Illinois Secure Choice aims to serve.

The program automatically puts 5 percent of workers’ incomes in a retirement Roth IRA through payroll deductions. Run by a private-sector financial-services firm — just like a 401k — Illinois Secure Choice costs about 75 cents a year for every $100 in a worker’s IRA. That’s significantly cheaper than some 401ks.

“When you do focus groups, what you find is that people in their 20s and 30s in this situation say, ‘I am not thinking  about it,” state Sen Daniel Biss told the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2014 after he introduced Secure Choice legislation. “People in their 50s say, ‘I wish I had’.”

Companies that offer retirement savings programs will not have their workers automatically enrolled. And even at companies where employees will be automatically enrolled, anyone — such as somebody who already has plenty of money set aside for retirement — can voluntarily opt out of the program. It’s just a matter of checking off a box on an online form.

The accounts are portable for people who change jobs. Workers can adjust the amount taken out of their pay. If workers put aside enough money through Secure Choice, they can delay taking Social Security, which could increase Social Security payments by 7 percent to 8 percent for every year payments are deferred.

Meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board last week, state Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs said it’s time to stop listening to skeptics who say government should leave retirement planning to the private sector.

“My answer is that if the private sector can solve this problem, why do half of Illinoisans of working age have less than $5,000 saved?” Frerichs said. “This is how government is supposed to work — to help you save your own money so that you can enjoy your retirement.”

And polls have shown that not having enough income for retirement is a widespread fear.

We urge working people in Illinois to embrace Secure Choice.

It beats living in your kids’ basements someday.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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