More than 40 years after Ted Benna conceived of what’s now known as the modern defined contribution pension plan structure, the so-called ‘father of the 401(k)’ is still trying to create a retirement savings plan that’s accessible for employees at all income levels.

While working at Johnson Cos. in September 1979, Benna found a way to leverage a provision in the U.S. tax code to help his organization’s employees save pre-tax salary into a retirement account, while also receiving a matching contribution from their employers.

“Back at that time, . . . the idea of saving for retirement was a very new concept,” he says. “I learned over the years that the primary benefit of 401(k) [plans] is it helps convert spenders into savers. . . . Most middle income employees would not achieve what they do with a 401(k), if it didn’t come out of their paycheque right at the top.”

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He says, at the time, this was true even for himself, a parent to four children and with a mortgage. “It wasn’t easy putting six per cent of my pay in [a] pre-tax [account] and getting the employer match. But, you know, I knew it was pretty dumb if I didn’t do that. And I wouldn’t have done that, you know, otherwise.”

The challenges to saving that Benna’s family experienced have only increased over the years. As a result, he’s conceived a new incentive program, called the Wheat Grain Incentive Plan, which would see employers consistently offering their employees metaphorical grains of wheat representing core cash contributions — at a value set by the employer — for reasons such as meeting performance goals.

For lower-income workers, one of the biggest barriers to participating in an employer-sponsored pension plan is that the funds aren’t easily accessible if they need it for other things. Benna’s incentive plan would allow employees to withdraw a minimum of $500 annually. “The idea with this plan is employees would be able to access it on an annual basis, . . . [so if they] needed to withdraw the money . . . for whatever reason, . . . they would be able to do that.”

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However, the contributions wouldn’t be taxable until an employee accesses them, nor would they incur up-front employer or employee taxes. He also suggested employers could invest the contributions in short-term fixed-income investments, such as money market funds, because many participants may want to access the money for short-term needs.

Such investments currently earn around five per cent, he adds, noting participants who want to make longer-term investments would be able to transfer their account balances into another plan, such as a 401(k).

While Benna believes DC pension plans still play a major role in helping employees retire with confidence, he notes nearly half of U.S. workers are employed by companies that don’t offer these plans.

If his incentive plan catches on, he hopes it will be one more financial wellness support tool that employers can add to their employee well-being toolbox.

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