If you know or care anything about America’s retirement crisis, reading the press coverage on pensions is enough to make you bang your head against a wall. I know this feeling well. I work for our nation’s public service workers, the people whose retirement security is usually the target of these ill-informed articles.
So kudos to Hank Kim, executive director and counsel of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems, for calling out the shoddy reporting on pensions for what it is: misguided and irresponsible.
I have the tortuous task of trying to set the record straight on pensions to the media. One of my favorite encounters was with a reporter who insisted it didn’t matter that he was (erroneously) reporting retiree health care costs as pension costs. But these are two very different things! He was scaring the crap out of his readers about pensions, when a large portion of the costs he was reporting didn’t even have anything to do with pensions. This is just one encounter.
Our country’s retirement crisis is serious stuff. Half of near retirees have no savings whatsoever. And this startling statistic has to do with the absence of pensions, not because of them. The real problem is that fewer and fewer middle class workers have access to defined-benefit pension plans, which are still the best avenue to retirement security.
Older Americans without pensions are nine times more likely to live in poverty. But it’s no secret that pensions are disappearing as corporations (and now increasingly public sector employers) have moved to 401(k)-type accounts. Still, this makes little sense. We have already seen the consequence when retirement risks are shifted to individual workers—and it’s not pretty. Ask anyone who was close to retirement before the last stock market plunge.
As Teresa Ghilarducchi of the New School for Social Research brilliantly pointed out, our approach to retirement—expecting individuals who are not professional investors to manage their own funds and not touch their savings during tough economic times—is ridiculous. This is precisely why it hasn’t worked.
I’m sick of corporate-backed politicians attacking the retirement security of the few workers who have it left. It hurts the middle class and economy at a time when they should be making sure that all Americans can retire with dignity. As Kim points out, addressing our retirement crisis means fewer seniors will have to rely on public assistance. And it also means more jobs will open up for younger workers because people can actually retire.
Kim calls for a Secure Choice Pension or SCP. SCP is “a public-private partnership to offer affordable, easy-to-administer pension plans to private-sector employers—would provide guaranteed, lifetime retirement income that is immune to market fluctuations and sudden, unexpected economic downturns, at no cost to taxpayers.” California lawmakers are leading the way in this arena, and Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a bill offering a SCP-type retirement savings program for the state’s private sector workers.
Who else has a role to play in solving America’s retirement crisis? The media. Instead of falling for the talking points of a corporate-backed Governor or right-wing “think tank,” they should better educate themselves on how pensions work. Ask tough questions of those who would move to a system that has failed millions of other Americans. How does forcing more workers into 401(k)’s with higher fees help the 1 percent? How does taking more away from middle-class public sector workers free up more taxpayer dollars for corporations? Ask those questions, and you just might be on to a more interesting story.