"They are only as good as long as the insurance company stays in business," says Rick Meigs, president of 401(k)helpcenter.com.
He and others support the creation of a federal insurance fund - similar to the FDIC that backs bank deposits - that would guarantee these annuities.
Businesses without a retirement plan and more than 10 employees would be required to give them the option of directing part of their paycheck into an individual retirement account. Workers could opt out. Or, if they choose to participate, they can decide how much they want to contribute.
But if they don't respond either way, 3 percent of their pay automatically would go into a Roth IRA. Employers wouldn't have to contribute anything.
Some pension experts are concerned that workers would end up with an inadequate retirement if they rely only on this account.
"An Auto IRA is a first step," says Karen Friedman, policy director at the Pension Rights Center.
She worries about the fees and penalties on these small accounts. Low-wage workers are the most likely to tap an IRA in an emergency and get hit with a penalty they can't afford, she says.
The president also proposes expanding the saver's credit, a tax break that's currently worth up to $1,000 to low- to moderate-income workers who contribute to a retirement account.
The credit reduces your bottom-line tax bill, which doesn't help millions of filers who don't owe any tax.
Obama's budget would simplify the credit and make it more widely available by raising the income limit for eligibility. Workers would still get 50 cents on every dollar saved, though the maximum credit would be $250 for singles and $500 for joint filers.
One big improvement: If you don't owe any taxes, you would get the credit as a refund. In the future, these refunds could be directly deposited in the Automatic IRA.
Congress, too, is getting creative on how to make us more aware of our retirement picture. It's considering legislation that would require 401(k) statements to project a worker's monthly retirement income based on the current balance, similar to the Social Security benefit estimates workers get each year. The hope is that faced with those woefully low numbers, we'll be motivated to save more.
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