I Helped Low-Income Americans Save for Retirement — Until Trump Ended the Program

Last month, the Treasury Department announced plans to wind down the myRA program, an Obama-era initiative designed to help low- and middle-income earners start a retirement account. According to the July 28 press release, the Treasury could not justify the expense the three-year-old program represented to taxpayers, given the slow uptake of the program among its target demographic: the 55 million Americans who lack access to a workplace retirement plan.

The argument against myRA’s expense is hard to swallow, since the next item on President Donald Trump’s agenda is a tax reform plan that could cost as much as $7 trillion over the next decade. The myRA program would be 0.001 percent of the cost. The claim that enrollment has been unenthusiastic isn’t much easier to stomach, since the program was so new. Publicity efforts, such as partnerships with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs and promotions through government websites and TurboTax, have not yet been executed.

In reality, it was a deeply practical, badly needed program. I spent this past tax season working with United Way of King County to expand the savings options available to low-income taxpayers in Seattle. Tax time is one of the only times a year that saving is a real possibility for low-income earners — their tax refunds are often the largest lump-sum payment they receive all year. Asking clients a question as simple as, “Are you considering saving a portion of your refund today?” was enough to spark a meaningful conversation about budgeting, savings, and overall financial stability. Tax clients had the option of splitting their refund into a savings account, savings bond, or myRA, which was piloted at United Way’s tax sites for the first time this season.

For middle- and upper-income earners, retirement programs are an assumed benefit.

myRA was a great fit for clients who were new to saving. The accounts had no minimum balance required, no fees, and no risk of losing money. Account holders could withdraw contributions in case of an emergency, and had the option to automatically contribute from their paycheck. And since almost 1 in 6 King County households are underbanked or unbanked, myRA’s accessibility without a formal relationship with a bank or other financial institution is a major asset. Of course, myRA was not perfect: It was hard to access without a Social Security number, and it counted against people enrolled in other safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP) in states with public assistance asset limits.

Imperfections aside, myRA provided a straightforward and flexible savings platform unlike any other. For middle- and upper-income earners, primarily white collar workers, retirement programs are an assumed benefit. There is no comparable alternative for workers whose employers don’t offer such benefits. And with the increasing necessity of “side hustles” in the gig economy, many workers don’t even have an employer to fill that role. Five states are moving forward with state-sponsored retirement plans called “Secure Choice,” which provides some hope, despite congressional efforts to block them.

After I left Seattle, I worked with a think tank in Washington, DC. I passed by the Treasury building on my way to the office every morning, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on the thousands of taxpayers all the way across the country in the “other” Washington.

The label “taxpayer” is one Americans on both sides of the country (and the states in between) wear with honor, regardless of their political ideology. The structure of our tax code, the loopholes and deductions we permit, and whether or not we feel our tax burden is fair should be reflective of our values. If we value financial stability, for ourselves and our neighbors, we need to support programs like myRA. Without it, there aren’t many safe and accessible retirement savings options for lower-income workers. Innovative programs that could level the playing field deserve a chance to prove that they work, instead of being shut down.

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org