BOSTON (TheStreet) -- With half of workers lacking access to workplace retirement plans, several states are leading the charge to create their own Individual Retirement Accounts.

So-called Universal Voluntary Retirement Accounts would be a low-cost option to an IRA combining a state's existing retirement system with professional fund management. The buying power and influence wielded by a state would help reduce costs and complexities that prevent many small businesses and non-profits from starting retirement plans.

The Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit public-policy center in Washington state and a member of the national Economic Analysis and Research Network, is a proponent, describing the plans as critical for small-business competitiveness. Workers would benefit from easy-to-manage payroll deductions, a pre-selected menu of investment options and a retirement plan that can move from job to job.

According to the EOI, two out of three low-wage workers and one in four high-wage workers lack access to a retirement plan in the U.S. In 2007, 80% of private-sector workers in businesses with fewer than 25 employees didn't participate in a pension plan. Even in companies with 500 or more employees, 43% lacked coverage.

In Rhode Island, a new commission will study the establishment of Universal Voluntary Retirement Accounts.

Nearly half of Rhode Island's retirees have only Social Security, says Xay Khamsyvoravong, deputy chief of staff for Rhode Island Treasurer Frank Caprio. A similar share of employers don't offer retirement benefits to full-time employees and just 19% extend plans to part-time workers.

"The retirement crisis in Rhode Island is real, and the taxpayers are the ones who ultimately pay to provide social programs and services provided to those unprepared to burden these enormous expenses on their own," he says. "There's a large portion, almost a majority, of the population that the financial industry has not successfully been able to reach."

The state would select an investment manager to design, market and administer the plan through bidding. Firms that could benefit include Fidelity Investments, Barclays ( BCS), State Street ( STT), OppenheimerFunds ( OPPEX) and TIAA-CREF.

Employers would be required to offer the program to their employees, but would bear no cost. Participation itself would be voluntary.

Several states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, Michigan, Maryland and West Virginia, are also considering creating Universal Voluntary Retirement Accounts.

"We are not looking to have states be a major player in the financial-services sector, but rather to be that incubator to get people started and off the ground," says Gary Burris, EOI's senior policy associate. "Each state is going to decide for itself exactly how they manage it."

"Many small businesses are just too small to get a 401(k)," he says. "There is just too much cost associated with them."

Although no state has yet to adopt a Universal Voluntary Retirement Account, there has been some advancement, Burris says. That progress is all the more heartening given that most state legislatures were narrowly focused on budget issues for much of the past year.

EOI is urging the federal government to spend upwards of $15 million to help states advance the plans. Burris says federal investment would help cover start-up costs and, perhaps, create the momentum needed to bring additional states on board with Universal Voluntary Retirement Accounts.

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston. Feedback can be sent to joseph.mont@thestreet.com.

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