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Labor Secretary Robert Reich led a group of academic and business experts last week in urging Congress to pay greater attention to educating Americans on the need for long-term personal savings.

The debate before a Senate Finance subcommittee focused on why Americans were saving so little and whether trends toward individual rather than corporate retirement accounts were exacerbating the problem.But all agreed the problem was large and growing.

"Right now, if any American worker thinks about his or her pension at all, it is usually just a vague sense that the government or an employer will write retirement checks in the future," said Sarah Teslik, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors. Such workers, she said, must be given a stronger sense of the link between themselves and their long-term assets.

According to Steven Venti, an economic professor at Dartmouth College, the typical U.S. family on the eve of retirement in 1982 had less than $7,000 in financial assets.

"Americans," he told the subcommittee on deficits, debt management and long-term economic growth, "are not saving."

Teresa Ghilarducci, assistant director of employee benefits with the AFL-CIO, said the nation's rate of personal savings has declined since 1984.

Reich said U.S. businesses have been contributing to the problem, cutting from 90 percent to 60 percent over the past 20 years the percentage of workers covered by "defined benefit" pension plans.

But Reich said experts have been lecturing U.S. workers like "a wagging schoolmaster" on the need for increased savings and instead should be giving them the information they need to cope.

He said the Labor Department, as part of the solution, was beginning a public education campaign on the need for workers to take personal responsibility for their pensions.

"The only enduring solution is to equip every American to succeed through hard work - under the rules of the new economy," Reich said.

"It used to be enough to keep your shoulder to the wheel and be loyal to your employer," he said. "But the rules have changed. Now you need to make your own way in the economy, learn new skills throughout your career, be ready to apply them in new ways and in new settings."

The subcommittee heard from some workers who said they learned the lesson too late. John Russell Wantz Jr. of Taneytown, Md., told the committee he worked 30 years as a plasterer before finding out, now that he is 67 years old and in failing health, that he had not been earning a pension.

"I wish that I had known when I was younger what I am learning now the hard way," Wantz told the panel.

Richard Thaler, a professor of management at Cornell University, agreed that "behavioral economics" was an important part of any strategy for increasing savings.

"The fact is that few people are capable of making the necessary calculations, and even those who can do the calculation may lack the personal resolve to stick to the rational plan," Thaler said.

Thaler also warned against signs of a revived interest in a new kind of "back-loaded" individual retirement account in which participants get their tax break when they withdraw their money, rather then when they contribute to the fund.

He blamed the idea on federal lawmakers who have their own "self-control problem," since they want to spend the tax money now and leave the budget implications to a future generation. "Congress cannot help to solve America's self-control problem unless it can solve its own self-control problem," he said.