We Have a Retirement Savings Problem. Politicians Can Help.

■ People could save on their own, and they should if they can possibly afford to. But absent the ease of payroll deduction, they mostly do not. Sarah Mysiewicz Gill, senior legislative representative for AARP, said that people with a workplace plan that automatically enrolls them are about 15 times more likely to save than someone who is left to shop brokerage firms for an individual retirement account.

■ The savings plan gap is a problem in red states and blue states. The 12 large metropolitan areas with the lowest access to workplace plans, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study this year, are in just three states: California, Florida and Texas.

Set against this abysmal reality, there were attempts at federal legislation that would have created something called the Automatic I.R.A. I wrote about it in detail in 2009. Nothing ever passed.

The federal government already has an outstanding workplace savings plans for its own employees: the Thrift Savings Plan. Given that it’s cheap and has simple, prudent investment choices, why not open it up to the tens of millions of savers who have no workplace plan at the moment?

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has proposed doing just that. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, well aware of the fact that entrenched lifers in Washington do not want to share their great plan with others who have no plan lest it cost too much or make things too complicated, introduced legislation that would create a sort of shadow Thrift Savings Plan. Neither proposal has gained much traction.

So the ease-of-saving advocates have taken their efforts to the states, where lawmakers have been more receptive.

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Senator Marco Rubio has proposed opening up the Thrift Savings Plan to the tens of millions of savers who have no workplace plan.

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon have passed laws requiring employers of various sizes to offer workplace retirement plans. If those employers use plans that the states have created instead of signing up workers for private sector plans, they must automatically enroll employees.

New Jersey and Washington will soon have marketplaces intended to make it easier for small employers to find low-cost plans, and Massachusetts is setting up a program for nonprofit employers.

This is far better than nothing, but these are all blue states. Why? After the Affordable Care Act, legislators have been resistant to any new mandates, according to John Scott, the director of the Retirement Savings Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Pew’s focus groups have turned up skepticism too, given the problems with both the underfunded state…

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