Obama Calls For The Creation Of MyRA Accounts

In his State of the Union address, President Obama pitched an idea for making it easier for Americans to save for their retirement. He took the message on road to Pittsburgh Wednesday.

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A passage in President Obama's State of the Union speech promoted job training. He'll promote it again today when visiting a General Electric plant outside Milwaukee. The president is trying to follow up on his address, which is also why he promoted retirement savings while visiting Pittsburgh yesterday.

NPR's Scott Horsley was there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama toured the hot and cold-rolled steel-making operation in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, part of U.S. Steel's vast Mon Valley Works, which turns out tons of steel used in cars, construction, and appliances.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You just don't come to the steel city without coming to U.S. Steel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HORSLEY: Obama was greeted at the plant by both the CEO of U.S. Steel and the president of the United Steelworkers Union. He noted that the unionized employees here enjoy good benefits, including retirement savings, but added many other workers in America are not so fortunate.

OBAMA: Most workers don't have a pension in America. Just half work for an employer that offers any kind of retirement plan. Social Security check is critical. But oftentimes that monthly check, that's not enough.

HORSLEY: So yesterday Obama signed a presidential memorandum calling for the creation of a new kind of retirement savings account called a MyRA. It's a sort of entry-level IRA, designed to get workers who aren't in the habit of saving used to the idea of setting money aside on a regular basis. The plan is also designed to encourage employers to offer the stripped-down savings plan through ease of administration.

Money is deducted from workers' paychecks, much like a 401(k) contribution. But instead of a wide array of investment choices, the savings go only into government bonds. That's pretty conservative, with an interest rate based on U.S. Treasury bills. But the president says savers' money would be completely safe.

OBAMA: These account balances will never go down in value. They're backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. And it's affordable. So you can open an account with as little as $25. You can contribute as little as $5 at a time.

HORSLEY: Workers who change jobs can take their savings with them and withdraw their money with no tax penalty. No one is going to get rich off a MyRA account. The most you can sock away is $15,000, after which the money can be rolled into a private IRA.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told reporters traveling on Air Force One yesterday, this government-sponsored piggy bank is designed to make the introduction to saving both easy and routine.

SECRETARY JACK LEW: And what we've learned is, that when people start saving, they get into the habit of saving. And they ultimately save more and for longer. And if you can graduate from this kind of program to being in the habit of savings, people over a career will be much more secure at the point when they reach retirement.

HORSLEY: Like other executive actions the president is taking this week, the MyRA accounts don't go as far as Obama would like. For years he's been urging Congress to make retirement investing automatic, so all workers would be enrolled in a savings plan unless they deliberately opted out. Congress hasn't acted on that, so for now the president is left with a program that's strictly voluntary for employers.

As Obama told workers at the steel mill yesterday, he'll take what he can get.

OBAMA: Wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity for more families, regardless of what Congress does, that's what I'm going to do.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Aides say the president will keep pressing lawmakers for more far-reaching action on retirement savings. In the meantime, the first MyRA accounts should be available by the end of the year.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Pittsburgh.

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