Bailey Childers is executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition. In this Quick 5 interview, she talks about the retirement crisis in the U.S.

Bailey Childers is executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition. In this Quick 5 interview, she talks about the retirement crisis in the U.S.

1. Bailey, the National Public Pension Coalition recently released a report titled Why Pensions Matter. What did the report examine and what were some of the findings?
The report looks at the long history of public pensions in the United States from their origins in the late 19th century up through the present day. Public pensions have provided a reliable source of retirement security for teachers, firefighters, and other public employees for more than a century. Unfortunately, the shift to 401(k) retirement plans in the private sector over the past 30 years has been detrimental to most working families. It is becoming increasingly clear that 401(k)s have failed to meet the retirement income needs of most working people.  This, coupled with nearly half of working Americans receiving no retirement plan through work has left us with a retirement security crisis in America.

2. Why is there a retirement crisis in Kansas and throughout the U.S. and how have pensions helped to keep people afloat?
Our current retirement savings programs have failed to meet the needs of working families.
Almost half of all workers don’t have access to a retirement savings plan through their employer, making it much more difficult for them to put aside money for retirement. For many who do have access, they only have access to a 401(k) plan, which has proven to be woefully inadequate.  The median 401(k) balance is only $18,000 total.  
Defined benefit pensions provide the most secure retirement because they provide a guaranteed, monthly benefit for life. Retirees can’t outlive their pension. That’s a reliability that 401(k)s can’t provide.

3. When did the general public become aware of the need for public pensions and why is it crucial that public employees’ benefits are protected?
Public pension plans became more common during the Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th century as cities and states sought ways to provide retirement security for their employees (many of whom do not have the ability to participate in Social Security).
Pensions are a promise made to employees and it’s a promise we must keep.  Employees in Kansas, for example, pay 6 percent of each paycheck into their pension.  
They never skip a payment.  But we have to hold elected officials accountable to their end of the bargain - it’s very discouraging to see Gov. Brownback skip state payments into the pension.  
That type of fiscal mismanagement leads to underfunding of systems that employees and retirees are depending on.

4. What do you say when people question why taxpayers should pay for public pensions?
Pensions are a great value for taxpayers - they provide a benefit that allows the state to recruit and retain the best teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public employees.  
Studies have found that a state can provide the same level of benefit through a pension at half the cost of a 401(k).  
Additionally, pensions are part of the overall compensation package for public employees, a form of deferred compensation.  Workers contribute now, out of each and every paycheck, and receive the benefit in retirement.
The real question I’d like to see taxpayers ask is why do they not have a pension or some form of adequate retirement plan, and why aren’t lawmakers working to address that?

5. Why is the history of pensions largely misunderstood and do many people who are critical of public pensions forget that teachers, nurses, police officers, correctional officers and many others who have devoted their lives to serving their communities are affected adversely by pension underfunding?
Working families in the United States face a ton of challenges: stagnating wages, student debt loads for younger workers, and a lack of access to a secure retirement.  
It’s easy to forget there was a time when many of us had pensioners in our own families, whether they were dockworkers, loaded trucks, delivered mail, taught school children or were factory workers.  
We have to lean on our policymakers to find solutions that will make a positive impact for retirement security - that’s where the history of pensions is so important.  
Pensions are collective accounts that are professionally managed and do not leave any one individual to the whims of a stock market like a 401(k) does.  We have to go back to a model where we share risk and provide the type of retirement people can depend on throughout their full retirement.  Pensions are that model.

— Rimsie McConiga