Opinion

Underfunded pension systems are starting to collapse

It is the ultimate wake-up call for present and future pensioners in America: Three New York-based private sector defined-benefit pension programs cut payments to their retirees because they are running out of money.

Unfunded pension obligations are, next to foreign enemies, perhaps the single greatest threat to our nation's future. The need to reform this broken – and soon to be broke – system is paramount, yet the president has refused to touch this third rail of politics. No surprise there for a liberal Democrat. Yet, on the Republican side, the home of fiscal conservatives, few presidential candidates other than Chris Christie or Scott Walker were willing to even mention entitlements. Moreover, the party's nominee affirmatively proclaims he will not touch them at all.

Meanwhile, pensioners cheer, just as Greek pensioners did when their president defiantly informed their EU creditors that Greece would not support fiscal reforms. Then the money ran out and there was a run on the banks.

As America has been creeping toward European socialism, cities such as Detroit, San Bernardino and Stockton, as well as the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, have imploded, in part due to unsustainable pension obligations.

Cities with defined-benefit pension systems that commit to providing pensioners with an exact, consistent monthly payment, are the ones in the most trouble. Private defined pension systems are experiencing the same crisis. According to Newsday, since February, three private pensions – Bread Carriers Local 707, Bakery Drivers Local 550 and Local 138 Pension Trust Fund – have cut their members’ monthly benefits, some by up to 40 percent.

While there were once more employees than retirees in the systems, the ratio is now flipped on its head. Locals 707 and 550 have, respectively, 740 and 150 employees, compared to 3,820 and 1,300 retirees.

Local 707 takes in $7 million a year, but is obligated to pay out $48 million per year in retiree benefits.

When a nation or a pension system has more people on the cart than pushing it, it spells trouble. It's the same reason Social Security's trajectory is unsustainable. While in 1950 there were 16 workers for every retiree, there are now just three workers per retiree.

This is why it matters that we look at the unemployment rate by including the number of people who have stopped seeking work. The social welfare system that has ballooned over the last decade, including the skyrocketing number of those now on disability (approximately 9 million), has resulted in the highest ever number of Americans who are not working (approximately 93 million). Politicians and pensioners ignore this trend at their peril.

After a career in state and local government, I am now a member of the retirement system. So I'm often asked in amazement why I would be advocating changes to a system that guarantees me a handsome sum each month. The answer is that I want the system to still be around in the decades to come.

We can avoid the type of fiscal Armageddon we are seeing in the imploding systems mentioned above by making changes most Americans would deem reasonable, if not necessary.

Here are just some solutions that officials need to implement as soon as possible:

  1. Shift to defined contribution systems for future employees similar to a typical private sector 401(k) plan, rather than a defined benefit program that has taxpayer guarantees for public pension benefits by making up for market losses.

  2. End public sector rules that allow for retirement after just 20 years. They are no longer realistic or sustainable.

  3. Stop overtime from being factored into formulas setting pension rates.

  4. Consider small increases of employee contributions into the system.

  5. Curtail over-taxation and regulation that kill job openings that would help fund the pension system.

  6. Eliminate disincentives for able-bodied Americans to work. Everyone has stress and lower back pain; that shouldn't qualify 35-year-olds for permanent disability. And the original work requirements in the ’90s Welfare Reform Act that were liberalized by the current administration must be reimposed.

Our current crop of leaders has been spineless in dealing with this brewing crisis. So here's my final suggestion: impanel another Simpson-Bowles type commission that can promulgate solutions. But this time, give it teeth.

We can use the BRAC Commission's success in closing superfluous military bases as a model. Congress provided power to the commission to decide upon and actually close the bases, with electeds retaining only the power to veto the decision in its entirety. It was cowardly, in that it shielded the representatives from accountability. But, it worked. Perhaps the mere threat of having such a panel will finally get Congress to take action on this urgent subject.

 

Steve Levy is President of Common Sense Strategies, a political consulting firm. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of "The Steve Levy Radio Show"

 

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