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Helping Low-Income Taxpayers Put Money Aside for that Rainy Day

Most Americans tend to spend their federal tax returns almost as soon as they arrive, but saving some portion of that money is a smarter -- though tougher -- decision

raining money

Most Americans have a hard time keeping enough money aside in savings to handle an unexpected expense like repairing a car or a leaky roof. And with the average federal income-tax refund nearing close to $3,000 this year, many of them are probably spending that refund almost as soon as it comes back from Washington.

So to help encourage better savings habits, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced federal legislation that would establish a new program to let taxpayers voluntarily defer a portion of their tax refund until later in the year.

The bill is one of a number of proposals that have been put forward in recent years as government leaders at the federal and state levels try to encourage low-income residents to save more. They range from New Jersey’s effort to encourage more retirement savings with individual-retirement accounts to federal matching programs to the new push to allow a portion of federal income-tax refunds to be deferred.

The legislation sponsored by Booker would give taxpayers the option to put aside up to 20 percent of their federal income-tax refund for up to six months. The deferred portion of the refund would also generate interest the entire time it is kept aside. And with a Republican congressman cosponsoring the measure, Booker is hoping the bill can make it through the GOP-controlled Congress in time for the savings program to go into effect for the 2017 tax year.

Booker said the inspiration for the bill came from his time working with residents of Newark on their personal financial habits while he was serving as the city’s mayor from 2006 to 2013. Many Newark residents were taken off guard by the size of their federal tax refund, particularly lower-wage workers who qualify for credits like the federal government’s Earned Income Tax Credit or for the childcare tax credit, he said.

“A lot of folks were surprised by their refund. They didn’t know they were owed so much,” Booker said in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

But devoting a good portion of the refund to savings or using it to invest in something like a home were not always first choices for those receiving the check, said Booker.

“When people would take that lump-sum check they would not necessarily invest it or save it or spend it wisely,” Booker said.

That’s a problem that seems to be shared by many Americans, according to a report on household savings habits that was issued earlier this year by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More than 70 percent of those who were surveyed by Pew said unexpected expenses were an impediment to building up adequate household savings.

And Pew recommended in an issue brief (http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2016/01/barriers-to-saving-and-policy-opportunities) that there be more tools available to provide consumers with automatic savings opportunities. Providing access to saved money without having to pay fees or penalties was another recommendation.

Under the federal legislation sponsored by Booker, which is being called the “Refund to Rainy Day Savings Act,” up to 20 percent of a tax refund could be deferred for one month or up to six months at no cost to the taxpayer. Instead, the deferred portion of a tax refund would earn interest for as long as its kept aside.

The bill would also set up a three-year pilot program to study the effectiveness of federal-savings matches that low-income savers could qualify for through another federal program, the Assets for Independence program. That nearly 20-year-old program provides grants to those who qualify to help encourage saving for a home, for a new business, or for post-secondary education.

The measure is being cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas). Booker and Moran serve together on the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security.

“The American Dream is ours to protect and pass on, and I’m proud to champion policies in the United States Senate that can help Americans improve their financial footing,” Moran said in a news release.

Their proposal has already won support from several organizations that are focused on personal finance and good government, including the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps low-and middle-income Americans save money and invest.

Andrea Levere, the organization’s president, said nearly half of all Americans keep aside almost no money as emergency savings.

“The Refund to Rainy Day Savings Act represents a critical step forward in efforts to help millions of working families save for a more financially secure future,” she said.

Last year, Democratic legislative leaders in New Jersey also sought to make it easier for residents to build up their savings by proposing an automatic payroll deduction for individual retirement accounts. The “New Jersey Secure Choice Savings Program” was suggested as a way to set up state-administered IRAs for employees of companies and small businesses that did not already offer their workers a suitable retirement plan. The effort was modeled after a similar program being offered in Illinois.

But after winning widespread approval in both the state Assembly and Senate, the measure was eventually conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year. The second-term Republican took issue with the state playing a direct role in administering the accounts. Christie -- who was running for president at the time -- also opposed what was a mandatory requirement for companies with at least 25 employees to offer the automatic deduction.

Lawmakers earlier this year ultimately accepted his recommendations, setting up a new retirement-savings portal to offer private-sector retirement accounts that have been approved by the state treasurer.

Booker said the proposed federal savings program would not run into any of the issues flagged by Christie in his conditional veto. The federal government would play only a minimal role in creating and running the proposed program. The deferred refunds would be kept in an account administered by the U.S. Treasury.

“This is not money that’s going to be invested in Wall Street or anything like that,” Booker said.

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