That's the thrust of the Roth Account for Youths Savings Act, or
RAYS Act, introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives
by Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas).
The Roth application would be optional, of course.
Hinojosa's bill builds on several earlier attempts to create a
tax-advantaged path for Americans to save at very young ages. If it
becomes law, it could provide a significant boost to savings by
lower-income Americans and could address a worrisome long-term
trend: younger households' deteriorating balance sheets.
The legislation calls for a simple change to the eligibility rules
for contributing to a Roth account. Currently, account owners must
have earned income to contribute, though there is an exception for
non-working spouses. Under the RAYS Act, contributions could be made
to the accounts of children whose parents have earned income.
Were it law today, up to $5,500 could be contributed this year from
any source — parents, grandparents or family friends. Withdrawals
would be subject to the regular IRA withdrawal restrictions — in
other words, no penalty-free withdrawals before age 59 1/2, with the
exception of education expenses or a home purchase.
Even small contributions made in a child's earliest years could turn
into significant saving down the road, thanks to the favorable math
of compound returns. And since it's a Roth account, with
contributions made with post-tax dollars, no tax is due on principal
on withdrawal; investment returns also come out tax-free.
One important feature of this bill: It would exclude the Roth saving
from means-testing calculations that qualify low-income families for
assistance programs such as food stamps, Medicaid or college
The name "RAYS Act" is a nod to its intellectual godfather — Ray
Boshara, director of the Center for Household Financial Stability at
the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Boshara began developing
ideas for youth savings accounts in a previous role as a vice
president of the New America Foundation.
At a time when political polarization makes it almost impossible to
get new ideas through Congress, Boshara's Roth-for-kids concept
could have a chance because of its bipartisan DNA. A 2004-05
proposal, called Aspire Accounts, would have included a $500 starter
contribution from the federal government for all children at birth,
with an additional $500 for low-income kids. It died, in part
because it would have cost $38 billion over 10 years but also
because it was attached to President George W. Bush's misbegotten
attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005.
I'm not going to hold that against the current Roth-for-Kids
proposal, because the idea is just too good. Boshara calculates that
an initial contribution of $500 to an infant's account, with
subsequent annual contributions of $250, would grow to $131,800 at
age 65, compared with just $35,300 for an account started at age 25,
assuming a 5 percent annual investment return (before fees).
Roth-for-Kids stems from research by the Center for Household
Financial Stability focused on the health of household balance
sheets. Boshara takes a wide view of family financial health,
looking at savings, credit and debt, homeownership, college saving,
retirement security and financial literacy.
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A series of research papers by the group, based on the Federal
Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances, finds that young people
are falling behind older generations at an accelerating rate.
Households in their 20s and 30s suffered the greatest loss of wealth
during the Great Recession, and have been slowest to recover.
"We are finding that age, race and the level of education are the
three strongest predictors of family wealth," he says. "And we're
seeing something unprecedented — that younger generations have lower
levels of wealth than their parents or grandparents. So we need to
start the process of saving much earlier. Even waiting until someone
is working is too late."
The research points to economic hardship throughout life for younger
generations, and especially in retirement. Weaker balance sheets
aside, these households also will be subject to the full brunt of
cuts in Social Security benefits initiated in reforms passed in
1983, and possible future cuts to the program, as well as Medicare.
Roth-for-Kids bears some resemblance to President Obama's new MyRA
accounts, which also technically are Roths and are structured as
starter accounts aimed at getting people into the habit of saving.
MyRa accounts will be administered by the U.S Department of the
Treasury and invested in Treasuries with low — return and guarantees
against loss of principal. And they would have no management fees.
But Roth-for-Kids IRAs would reside at private-sector financial
services firms, just like any other Roth account.
That difference points to a couple must-have features for
Roth-for-Kids. First, they would need a simple set of mutual fund
choices, since most account holders would be new to investing. And
savers would need to be guided toward low-cost fund options, since
high fees can swallow up a good chunk of returns over time.
Boshara and other supporters have been talking with low-cost mutual
fund providers and some foundations about ways to offer the accounts
through schools or other points of interaction with kids and their
There's much more that could be done. Making account setup automatic
for every child would boost take-up rates, just as auto-enrollment
has done for 401(k) plans. A starter contribution from the
government would be even better, an investment that would pay big
dividends in greater household financial stability when those kids
But this looks like a baby step in the right direction.
For more from Mark Miller, see
(Editing by Douglas Royalty)
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