Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is on a mission—and her target is all about helping you find some peace of mind.
“Retirement, what’s retirement?” I’ve spent my forties joking with friends—but not really joking—about how we’ll be working until we die. Sure, some of our set will be volunteering and relaxing and traveling the world. But others of us worry that we will be bagging groceries or working in one of those Amazon warehouses in the desert. Of course, we want to retire, but the national statistics on retirement are not encouraging.
Fortunately, bright minds are working on the retirement challenge, and they have a plan.
Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the founder of the Center for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown University, is part of a public-education campaign to help Americans understand that there’s a way to guarantee retirement for all of us. Here’s the smart advice RFK’s daughter had to share with the NextTribe community.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: Making the System Work for Us
NextTribe: When it comes to talking about retirement, the national narrative seems to be that we’re doomed and it’s our fault. But you have a completely different story. What do you know that we don’t know?
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: I want to tell everyone who’s worried they haven’t saved enough that it’s not your fault. And more importantly, we can fix this. There is a solution to our current retirement problem, and every American can play a role in solving it.
NT: According to behavioral economics research, what’s the best way for Americans to prepare for retirement?
KKT: People do best at saving for retirement when they have regular deductions from their paychecks going automatically into an investment account. It’s even better if that account is part of a large pooled fund and is managed by a professional. When the system makes it easy for people to save, people do save. In our current system, a huge chunk of the population doesn’t get to opt into automatic savings programs because their employers don’t have the capacity to offer them. We have a plan that solves that.
I want to tell everyone who’s worried they haven’t saved enough that it’s not your fault.
NT: Your plan is a guaranteed retirement account program. Can you explain that?
KKT: Basically, we want to create a system where all employees who work for an employer that does not offer a retirement plan will have access to one through the payroll system. Both employers and employees would contribute at least one-and-a-half percent of salary into a fund chosen by the employee. In our plan, the employee would choose from a list of reputable professional managers who would invest the funds into a large pooled fund at a low overhead management cost. The funds would be well diversified, like a pension investment.
NT: Why is this kind of large, pooled fund managed by professionals better than investing in your own Individual Retirement Account (IRA)?
KKT: There’s a mountain of research showing that when people pool their resources, they can lower the management costs, diversify the risks, and get professionals to make those difficult investment decisions. What I’m proposing is a pooled risk and greater range of assets to invest in. Some days real estate does well, some days commodities do well. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. We want professional managers who resist the vagaries of market.
NT: There’s a movement afoot with state-run IRA programs. Can you explain that?
KKT: Ten states have enacted legislation to help their citizens save for retirement. Five states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon) require that businesses that have not established a retirement program offer their employees a payroll deduction that would flow into an IRA.
Oregon’s was the first of the five to get their effort underway. More than 70 percent of the employees have opted in, with an average contribution of five percent of their salary. That 70 percent represents all those Americans who would save if they had access to an employee deduction! This is progress, but we can do better. We want to make sure that all Americans have access to savings accounts, not just those in a few states. We want them to be able to invest in a broad range of assets.
A recent poll shows that 76 percent of Americans fear retirement more than death.
NT: If states are doing such a good job, what is the advantage of a national program?
KKT: The easy answer is that a national savings fund is portable across states, and an employee could contribute no matter where she or he lives! The odds are that the fund would perform better than an IRA because of a broader range of assets and lower fees.
NT: Are there examples of success in countries that have federal guaranteed retirement-account programs?
KKT: Many countries have retirement opportunities in which all citizens participate. Australia is one of the most prominent with its Super Annuation fund. (Annuities are pooled … so it is super!)
NT: Is there any pushback on this idea of a guaranteed retirement account run by the federal government?
KKT: Sure, there’s pushback. Some argue, “Why set this up when people can go into the market by themselves and purchase an IRA?” But as I said, behavioral economics research has found that doesn’t work. A recent poll by the American Federation of Teachers shows that 76 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats like the plan. Also, 86 percent of millennials like the plan. I’m encouraged by how much bipartisan popularity it seems to have. And Millennials have so much to gain from it! They’re going to be hit the hardest by the adverse effects of the Gig Economy [meaning that workers hold various freelance gigs rather than have a single employer]; they need this program, and they know it.
NT: Why do you believe that Americans can drive a solution?
KKT: I’ve seen a huge uptick in civic engagement over the last couple of years. People are interested in the democratic process, they’re calling their representatives and demanding to be represented. We can put pressure on our policymakers and tell them that we want federal legislation that guarantees all of us a retirement with dignity and independence. We can talk about this in the organizations we’re involved in, and get those organizations to put pressure on our policymakers. We can do this!
NT: Why isn’t this topic more at the forefront of the news? It seems so vital!
KKT: A recent poll shows that 76 percent of Americans fear retirement more than death. They blame themselves for not saving more. But as we know, it is not an individual’s fault. The system does not produce better results, and it is the system that needs changing. We can make the system can work for us.
Christine Grillo is a food systems and science writer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also writes about flora, fauna, people, health and human rights, and her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Times, Utne Reader, Civil Eats, Last Word on Nothing and local magazines such as Baltimore Style.
A version of this article was originally published in September 2018.