Meet The myRA — Obama's New Retirement Plan

On Wednesday, President Obama directed the Treasury Department to create a new retirement plan called "myRA." The decision, a circumvention of Congress, follows through on one of the promises made by the president in his State of the Union. As Yuki Noguchi reports, the success of the plan may depend on its ability to move beyond the limitations of existing retirement plans.

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President Obama has already made good on one of the promises in his State of the Union speech last night. Today, he directed the Treasury Department to create a new retirement plan called myRA. The idea is to make it easier for people who don't have retirement plans to start putting something away. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports the program's success depends on whether it can move beyond the limitations of existing retirement plans.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Speaking today at a steel plant near Pittsburgh, the president touted his new plan, saying it would make saving easier and more attractive to the half of working Americans who do not have employer-sponsored retirement plans.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's a new type of savings bond that we can set up without legislation that encourages Americans to begin to build a nest egg. And it's simple.

NOGUCHI: The myRA is a play on the IRA, an individual retirement account. It functions like a Roth IRA but costs less to start - $25. Workers will then sign up for automatic payroll deductions of as little as $5 of each paycheck to go towards a savings program that invests in government bonds. It's risk free, in that the government guarantees the principal. And the program pledges to help small businesses with the administrative set-up.

OBAMA: And what I'm hoping is that working Americans will take a look because I want more people to have the chance to save for retirement through their hard work. And this is just one step that we can take to help more people do that.

GREG MCBRIDE: Conceptually, it's a good idea. But, you know, the devil's ultimately in the details.

NOGUCHI: Greg McBride is senior analyst with the consumer finance website Bankrate.com. Because the president wanted to set up the program without going through Congress, the program is voluntary. Meaning, people will still have to sign up. And McBride says history shows that often doesn't happen.

MCBRIDE: If you wait for people to sign up on their own volition and check the box as to how much money of their own pay they're going to contribute, guess what, they don't do it.

NOGUCHI: But many workers never get the chance. Their employers don't offer a retirement plan. Dallas Salisbury, the president and CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, says the proposal will encourage many small businesses that have never offered a plan to do so.

DALLAS SALISBURY: What this approach does is it provides for that automatic payroll deduction with great ease to the employer. And it does it at dollar levels that our retirement confidence surveys over the years indicate would fall into an area that the vast majority say they could afford to be saving.

NOGUCHI: But, Salisbury says, any new retirement savings plan will depend heavily on marketing because socking away money is a tough sell even for the programs that any working American is eligible for today.

SALISBURY: The challenge is that IRAs have been out there since 1974. They still are used by only about 8 percent of taxpayers every year that are eligible for them. So one big question is: Is it likely this would be broadly used where the others haven't?

NOGUCHI: Separately, a Senate bill introduced today also proposed to encourage savings by reducing costs for small businesses to offer retirement plans, among other things. The Obama administration says it will set up a pilot of the myRA program with businesses later this year. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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