We care as much about government retirement systems living up to the promise of a path to retirement security as much as we care about them being able to fulfill their legal obligation to provide secure retirement income.
Equable created the Retirement Security Report to measure just how well public sector retirement plans are serving their members in providing a path to adequate retirement income.
Why Retirement Security Matters
Equable was founded with the mission to help improve the sustainability of public retirement systems, and ensure they are actually providing a path to retirement security for all of their members. State and local governments can not efficiently function for their citizens without stable finances, and the growth of public pension debt has threatened that sustainability in a number of places. Pension debt costs have also exacerbated inequities across the political landscape, such as reducing school district resources to fund programs for students from disadvantaged communities and draining money that could have been used for higher teacher salaries.
At the same time, when retirement systems fail to actually provide retirement security, they pose threats to both their members and governments sponsoring them. Compensation programs that call themselves “retirement plans” should actually provide a path to retirement — otherwise it is just a deferred compensation program that is misleading an individual into thinking they are building toward a secure financial future.
If you are a public worker, this matters to you because it is personal. While some retirement systems offer quality financial education tools, other states are effectively relying on the fact that most employees don’t completely understand their benefits and won’t realize ways that they are not being served well.
If you are a policymaker, this matters because poorly designed retirement plans simply delay inevitable political and fiscal costs. History has shown that when public workers recognize they are being underserved by their retirement plans, they put fiscal and political pressure on governments to solve that problem — such as the frequent fights in states where cost-of-living adjustments have been rescinded or never provided. Similarly, states could face fiscal pressures in the future from public sector retirees who’ve realized too late they weren’t on a path to secure retirement income and thus need supplemental support from government programs.
Why Definitions Matter
The American financial system developed over time to create an expectation that employers provide retirement benefits. While there might be other mechanisms for providing retirement benefits that work better, until they are in place it is important that government employers offering a retirement plan manage that expectation responsibly. If they offer a retirement plan it is critical that the benefits actually be retirement plans.
That is, if a compensation program does not provide a path to retirement security for all of its members, it probably shouldn’t be called a retirement plan. In such a case it is a supplemental savings program. Or deferred compensation. But calling it a retirement plan could mislead participants.
The Retirement Security Report takes this way of thinking seriously and focuses on measuring the value of benefits for workers in different ways, looking at public servants at various stages of their careers (10 years or less, 10 to 20 years, or full service careers), and assuming varying ages when starting work. These ways of grouping participants in a state retirement plan don’t cover all the ways that households differ, but they do hit some of the key factors that matter.
Upcoming Additions to the Retirement Security Report
In the coming months and years, we will expand the Retirement Security Report to cover more government benefit programs. We will add legacy state retirement plans that have large numbers of active members, but are closed to adding new members. We will add city- and county-administrated retirement plans. And as states and municipalities create new retirement plans, we will add them to RSR and provide a scorecard on the value of the new benefits being provided. So check back periodically for news about new public sector plans as they get created. New benefits created by Texas and Kentucky at the end of their spring 2021 legislative sessions will be among the first plans added to the RSR.
Our Hope for the Future
We hope that public workers will use the Retirement Security Report to begin their process of understanding whether or not their retirement plan is working for them. This tool looks at average employees and large grouping of types of workers to provide overall system assessments — but any one person should then look further at their own situation, their own career trajectory, their own level of compensation. Most public retirement plans provide good tools to calculate the kind of benefit that their members could expect, and we hope public workers are inspired to use those and improve their own familiarity with how their benefits work.
We hope that policymakers and the general public will use the Retirement Security Report to understand whether systems provided in their state are living up to the notional promise of being a retirement plan. Even if the legal promise of paying pensions is being fulfilled, if a retirement plan isn’t serving all of its members well then it isn’t living up to the notional promise of a “retirement plan.”
We hope that journalists who cover state politics and local retirement systems will also use the Retirement Security Report to understand the quality of benefits being provided. And if the quality of benefits provided is poor, we hope that those journalists use that information to hold leaders to account for what they claim and what they stand for when making statements about government retirement programs.