State can be part of solution to retirement-savings crisis

  • John Burbank
  • Tuesday, April 18, 2006 9:00pm
  • Opinion

By now we have all filed our tax returns for 2005, or at least we should have. One of the tricks that the government allows us is to put $2,000 in an IRA to save for retirement and take that off our taxes. That sounds OK, but the number of tax returns with this IRA deduction has fallen by more than 2 million since 1990.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, when you get around to it, most of us don’t have an easy $2,000 to plunk down in one day into an IRA.

We all know the importance of saving for retirement. But about 50 percent of workers in our state don’t even have a way to save at their place of work.

Their employers don’t have defined contribution plans, so even if they wanted to, they couldn’t put aside tax-free money to build a little next egg for retirement. And that really is the only practical way to save: a little at a time at, for example, $40 a week. Too few people have big chunks at any one time, like on April 15.

Americans are deceiving themselves about their retirement needs. Two-fifths of all workers in our country have less than $10,000 in savings, and two out of three have less than $50,000. For those over age 55, the situation is bleak; half have less than $50,000 set aside. It just isn’t enough.

Here it is important to do the math. At 5 percent interest, $25,000 at retirement will amount to a little more than $100 a month, while $50,000 gets you to $210 a month. Not exactly the mother lode.

The key is to save for retirement early and continually throughout your entire working life. If, for example, you put aside $100 every half month beginning at age 30 and get 5 percent interest discounted by 2 percent inflation, you will end up with about $120,000 after 30 years, which will then pay interest of close to $500 a month for retirement.

That’s easy for those with a retirement plan at work, but how do we do that when we can’t get into a plan? That’s the trap that half of workers find themselves in.

In our state, there is a bipartisan solution that has been crafted by state Sens. Harriet Spanel, D-Bellingham; Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham; Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park; Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma; and Brian Benson, R-Spokane, and, on the House side, Reps. Jim McIntire, D-Seattle, and Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, among others.

The answer is Washington Voluntary Accounts. It would enable every worker in the state to save pre-tax money into a retirement plan, much like the state employees’ deferred compensation plan. Each worker would be able to choose from a portfolio of safe investments.

This retirement savings program would be completely portable from workplace to workplace, so in the most likely event that employees change their place of work, they don’t have to start over again or juggle multiple small retirement accounts. And employers could choose to contribute to those accounts, so this plan becomes a default pension plan for employers in our state, excusing them from the administrative hassle and cost of setting up their own retirement plans.

This would be a godsend, especially for small employers. I know; when my organization decided to set up a retirement plan, we had to listen to the sales pitches of different financial service companies. We didn’t know which ones to believe, which ones jacked up administrative costs and which offered inferior investing. That’s one reason why most small businesses don’t have a retirement plan for their workers; it’s just too much hassle to figure out.

So next year, the Legislature has a chance to make it easy to save for retirement. Every year we wait is another year of retirement savings lost.

It’s incumbent on our state to step up to the problem. And with Spanel’s and McIntire’s legislation, they can. Rather than making us “make do” when we are trying to figure out our taxes, the Legislature could actually put in place a “can-do” solution that would enable us to help ourselves to long-term retirement security. How about that for some good old American common sense?

John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (, writes every other Wednesday. Write to him in care of the institute at 1900 Northlake Way, Suite 237, Seattle, WA 98103. His e-mail address is

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