Two days before Christmas, the Washington Post published a powerful article warning of a frightening future: a United States without pensions. The Post story highlights the plight of former employees of a McDonnell Douglas plant in Tulsa, OK. These employees lost their full pension benefits through a plant closure—a decision illegally made by the company because executives factored in future retirement benefits in their decision to close the plant. The outcomes for these workers 25 years later shows what happens when working Americans lose access to a secure retirement.
As the Post article notes, defined benefit pensions used to be common in the United States. During the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of workers who had access to a retirement savings plan through their employer had access to a pension. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the number of workers with access to a pension plummeted. We’ve discussed before some of the reasons for the decline of pensions in the private sector. Many companies were influenced in their decisions by a series of laws passed during the Reagan administration that made it more burdensome for companies to offer pensions.
The numbers reveal a startling reversal. From 1975 to 2005, the number of private-sector workers with a defined benefit pension dropped from 88 percent to 33 percent. This has real effects on working families. The Post story tells of a 79 year old working full-time at Wal-Mart; a 73 year old working overnight loading delivery trucks; and a 76 year old buying and selling junk. Despite long careers at McDonnell Douglas, these workers lost out on their full pension benefits and now must work to support themselves in retirement.
The impact of closing pension plans is not just limited to the private sector. More than twenty years ago, the State of Michigan closed its defined benefit pension plan for state employees. Last year the Michigan Office of Retirement Services reported that among state employees in the new 401(k)-style defined contribution plan, the median savings was only $37,260. West Virginia had the same experience when it closed its pension plan for teachers in 1991. Fourteen years later, the average account balance in the new defined contribution plan was just over $41,000. West Virginia wisely decided to reopen its pension plan for teachers in 2005.
We’ve seen what the future looks like without pensions and it is scary. According to the Federal Reserve, almost half of working families have no retirement savings accounts. Instead of dismantling public pensions, which do provide a secure retirement, our lawmakers should focus on ways to provide retirement security to those who have none. Otherwise, more workers will end up like 70 year old Charles Glover: “I hope I can quit working in a few years, but the way it looks right now, I can’t see being able to.”