No one-size-fits- all solution: The goal of pension sustainability is key

Pop and his granddaughter Lindsay

My pop was a Buffalo city bus driver for 25 years.  Just like millions of Americans – firefighters, nurses, teachers, and other public employees - Pop worked hard and counted on having his pension to help retire with confidence and dignity.  The long-term sustainability of today’s public pension programs is just as critical to millions of Americans.

Today, I have encouraging news for public employees.  A new report, Significant Reforms to State Retirement Systems, issued by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA) with financial support from AARP reviewed the pension reforms made in all 50 states since 2009  and found that while there are  no one-size-fits-all solutions, most states changed their pension plans to help ensure that these benefits will be there when public employees need them.

This report is the second that AARP and NASRA have issued. The first report, released in 2015, examines the performance of each state in meeting its commitments to fund its pension plans.  According to that report, in most cases, well-funded pension plans around the country consistently receive the annual required contribution to their pension systems.  It also found that most governments "made the payment" to their pension plans, and only a few neglected their funding responsibilities.

This year’s Significant Reforms to State Retirement Systems report takes a closer look at what else states are doing to help ensure the sustainability of their plans.   And, according to the new report, never has there been more reform in such a short period of time!  Following the Great Recession of 2008, almost every state took steps to examine whether their pension plans continued to balance the objectives of retirement security, workforce management, and cost containment.  While many states chose to increase contributions, reduce benefits, or both,   importantly, most also chose to retain the traditional pension plan like the one my Pop received, which provides a modest benefit that pensioners like him cannot outlive. AARP’s founder Ethel Percy Andrus knew the importance of such a benefit, from the day she discovered a dedicated, retired teacher living in a chicken coop because she had lost all of her savings.

This is why, despite difficult odds, state offices like AARP Alabama  and AARP Kentucky  successfully fought to retain traditional pensions in their states. They urged their lawmakers to continue making  the state’s annual payments to their pension plans - so that pension costs stay  low, and their committed teachers and other public employees can have the financial independence they need to live their retirement years with dignity and remain active members of the communities they love!

The health of our pension system is critical to public employees and their families across the country, and remains a key component of AARP’s state advocacy efforts to ensure financial security for all.

Elaine Ryan is the vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration (SASI) for AARP. She leads a team of dedicated legislative staff members who work with AARP state offices to advance advocacy with governors and state legislators, helping people 50-plus attain and maintain their health and financial security.

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