Are Public Pensions Keeping Up with the Times?

Retirement plans for public employees in the United States face serious challenges: By their own calculations, states and localities are $900 billion short of the funds they need to set aside to pay for benefits they have already promised their employees, write the Brookings Institution’s Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. Whitehurst and the Urban Institute’s Richard W. Johnson. But the problem is far more serious than currently imagined. What states accountants won’t admit, Chingos, Whitehurst and Johnson argue, is that the funding problem is much worse than states’ calculations show. 


The underfunding problem has two key components: First, by their own calculations, most states are not contributing enough to keep up with the pension promises they are making to their employees.  Second, states’ calculations seriously understate the extent of the funding problem.  Most states assume that they will earn an average rate of return of 8 percent a year on their pension funds, a highly unlikely outcome in the current economic environment.  This unrealistic assumption still produces a staggering unfunded liability: $0.9 trillion in 2011.  Using a more reasonable assumption of a 5 percent return increases the unfunded liability to $2.7 trillion, these scholars estimate, which implies that the average state has only funded half of its pension promises.  A funding gap of $2.7 trillion is more than four times the $607 billion in general outstanding debt on states’ books in 2012, Chingos, Whitehurst and Johnson report.


And many public employee pension systems also have design features that, even if the pensions are properly funded, compromise state and local governments’ ability to attract and retain the best employees, these writers assert.  Young workers have little incentive to join the state’s workforce unless they plan to remain on the payroll for at least 25 years.  Those who leave their jobs earlier forgo a significant portion of the retirement benefits from their employer.  This is because most pension systems provide very steep rewards late in employees’ careers, penalizing those who work for the state for “only” 10 or 20 years.  But there is also a problem at the other end of the career ladder, with pension systems punishing employees for staying too long past normal retirement age.  This design feature makes it difficult for the state to retain experienced older workers, many of whom have specialized skills and deep institutional knowledge that are difficult to replace.


As debate swirls around how to properly fund public employee benefits, this report assesses the real challenges facing state and local government retirement plans and details the problems facing public employee pension systems across the country.  Chingos, Whitehurst and Johnson’s comprehensive examination of the existing research on this topic highlights the many problems facing these pension plans, including the underfunding that threatens states’ economic futures and outdated design features that cripple states’ ability to recruit and retain the best public servants.