Public Pensions Fuel Government Growth

The straitened finances afflicting state and local governments across the nation have brought unprecedented scrutiny to government employees’ compensation, particularly pensions. As pro-market critics have pointed out how generous many public pensions are, government union representatives have pleaded poverty in response.

Today in The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine of The Heritage Foundation, say, “Not so” to such pleas of poverty. They do so by comparing defined benefit pensions to defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) accounts.

Complex formulas obscure the fact that public pensions typically are much more generous than 401(k)s, making the situation ripe for misleading claims.

A case in point is the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS), which insists that, because Illinois teachers don’t participate in Social Security, the average teacher’s pension of almost $43,000 “cannot qualify as ‘too generous.'” One might assume from such a statement that the typical Illinois teacher who retires this year after a full career will collect $43,000 per year. Not so. That average figure reflects the pensions of employees who retired years or decades ago, as well as individuals who worked only part of their careers in public schools.

The 2010 annual report for the TRS actually shows that the average teacher who retires today after 30 to 34 years of service had final earnings of $84,466 and collects a pension of $60,756 a year, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments, providing an income higher than 95% of retirees in Illinois.

These sums — and the strain they put on government finances — need to inform the debate over public pensions. But reformers need also to keep in mind the political implications of overly generous government pensions.

Generous pensions allow union-friendly politicians to satisfy their labor supporters’ demands while pushing those demands’ costs well into the future. Taxpayer resistance to increased spending is less powerful when politicians hide the spending through years-long delay. And that delay is one of the tools that have allowed government employee unions to become the permanent lobby for ever expanding government that they are today.

For more on pensions, see here.