Don't Cut Pensions, Expand Them

On Thursday morning the New York State Legislature agreed to a deal limiting pensions for future public employees. The state thus joins 43 others that have recently enacted legislation curtailing public retirement benefits.

Though New York needs to reduce its spending, the cuts come at a particularly bad time: over a third of New York workers, both public and private, approaching retirement age have less than $10,000 in liquid assets. As a result, those workers are projected to be poor or near poor in retirement, with an average budget of about $7 a day for food and approximately $600 a month for housing.
 
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution. Rather than curtailing public and private pensions, New York and other states could save millions of workers from impending poverty by creating public pensions for everyone.
 
While the recession bears some blame for the looming retirement crisis, experts agree that the primary cause is more fundamental: Most workers do not have retirement accounts at work. Over half of the workers in New York State, more than four million people in 2010, do not participate in retirement plans with their current employers, while over half of American workers do not have pension plans at work.
 
Private-sector pensions have been on the retreat for decades. In fact, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Congress, worried about the dismal rate of pension coverage, tried to remedy the situation by extending 401(k) plans, originally designed for executives, to everyone, while also passing a law to create individual retirement accounts.
 
The problem is that these steps set up incentives through the tax code, which means that the biggest benefits go to the highest earners — people who, moreover, would probably have saved anyway. Today 79 percent of such tax breaks go to the top 20 percent of workers.