H.E.L.P. for retirees?

Traditionally, we’ve used the concept of the three-legged stool to illustrate financial security in retirement. The idea was that it takes three legs (Social Security, a pension, and personal savings) to provide a stable income during retirement.

It was not so long ago that people believed Social Security was the most likely of the three legs to fall off the stool. However, the termination of many traditional defined benefit (DB) plans, along with poor investment performance in 401(k) plans and other personal savings, now make Social Security seem more solid.

What was once a three-legged stool is now looking more like a pogo stick.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (conveniently abbreviated HELP), has proposed a new employment-based retirement plan—Universal, Secure and Adaptable (USA) Retirement Funds.

Details are still evolving, but the concept is that each person’s account would receive contributions through payroll deduction and accumulate like a 401(k) plan. However, the account would be designed to provide a lifetime payment, more like a pension plan.

Sen. Harkin’s hope is that USA Retirement Funds would make pensions more accessible to small employers, but reap the benefits of large pooled accounts. The funds would be professionally managed by a board of trustees and participating employers would not be fiduciaries.

In addition, Sen. Harkin proposes substantial changes to Social Security. (Can everyone feel their stools shifting around?) The Rebuild America Act would improve benefit levels by about $60 per month, increase the cost of living adjustment, and finance the improvements by removing the wage cap on payroll taxes (currently $110,100).

It remains to be seen whether this plan will get any traction, and the proposal is unlikely to get much attention in D.C. anytime soon, but most people aren’t saving enough for retirement and winning the lottery is not an effective retirement strategy.

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