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Saving retirement

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Hey, kids, come gather ‘round. I have a story to share.

It takes place a long, long time ago, in a powerful, hopeful nation once revered as one of the few places in the world where most anyone ready to put in an honest day’s work could make their dreams come true. There, even if you didn’t attend a college with ivy-covered walls, you could still get a decent-paying job and afford a nice place in the suburbs and, here’s the best part, even get a pension plan that would help take care of you in your old age.

Then, for one reason or another, things began to change and everyone was told there was something even better than an employer-funded pension: the 401(k), a plan that would give anyone who truly cherished their God-given freedom what they really wanted – control over their stock and bond investments and, ultimately, their fates.  

Sadly, as we all know too well, that turned out to be a fantasy, too, a slight-of-hand that revealed itself whenever downturns hit and most recently when the economy took its 2008 swan dive.

Aren’t we all sick and tired of this garbage by now? How stupid were we to believe in these golden year fairy tales in the first place?

See also: Top 5 retirement issues

I’ve been a business editor for quite a few years now, but only recently began to focus on the retirement crisis. Here’s the thing that’s struck me most:

That whole health insurance crisis we’ve been trying to fix? That’s nothing compared to what we’re all about to face.

Worse, none of the latest auto-enroll, auto-escalation or other alleged 401(k) repairs are getting us to where we need to go.

How many more studies do we need telling us how grave matters have become?

One of the latest, “The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is it Worse than We Think?” from the National Institute of Retirement Security, found that four out of five working families have saved less than 1 percent of their income for retirement.

Among the report’s key findings:

The median retirement account balance for all working-age households is a jaw-dropping $3,000.

The Pew Center on the States has estimated 61 of the most populous cities in the United States faced a gap of more than $217 billion between what they’d promised their workers in pensions and retiree health care and what they’d saved to pay that bill. The gap for states topped $1 trillion, according to an earlier Pew study.

So, what to do? How will this get fixed? Is there a way out?

For a lot of Americans in their 50s and older, the answer is clearly no, it’s just too late. They’re headed to a place where, in the best of circumstances, multiple generations live under one roof, and, under the worst of circumstances, on the streets and in food lines.

The solution that offers the best hope at the moment is some sort of mandatory retirement planning at the employer level.

As we wrote earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin is promoting the establishment of what he calls USA Retirement funds, which would be privately run, but licensed and regulated by the government.

Harkin would create a retirement system that is universal and automatic.

So would The Center for American Progress, which more recently suggested a SAFE Retirement plan that would be run by independent boards with worker participation.

Under the center’s plan, employers would need only to facilitate enrollment and any required payroll deductions. Employers also would not be faced with administrative or fiduciary obligations.

The risks of the SAFE Retirement Plan would be spread among workers and retirees rather than borne solely by employers, as they are in a traditional pension plan, or individual workers, as they are in a 401(k).

This makes so much sense it’s ridiculous.

Will Congress take up the issue? Not likely. Can we count on the Obama administration to promote this? You’ve got to be kidding.

I, for one, have started talking to my wife about retiring in the highlands of Guatemala. The guidebooks say the weather is temperate year-round, its people all gentle souls. Sounds like a perfect fairy tale land, no?

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