Growing Talk of Pension Reform Makes Future More Uncertain for Workers

Behind all the stories about pensions draining public resources are workers who may be impoverished.

Karmella Sams, 50, is a welfare counselor in Philadelphia and Vice Chair of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 668 Chapter 12.  (National Journal)

Karmella Sams, 50, is a welfare counselor and Vice Chair of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for Local 668 Chapter 12 in Philadelphia. Sams has worked in the public sector since 2007. Each of her parents also worked in the public sector before retiring.

Public pensions have provided a reasonable standard of living for retirees like Sams' parents. But the stories she hears from new retirees relying on pension plans that have been reformed in states like Pennsylvania, make Sams, an African-American woman, very nervous.

Poverty is a growing problem for senior citizens in the United States and is disproportionately pronounced among black and Latino workers. Elderly black women, a group with the nation's second highest labor force participation rate before retirement, are already the most likely senior citizens to live in poverty.

Now cities, counties, and states across the country are investigating or have already enacted pension changes. Sams shared her views on pension reform and her worries for the future with The Next America.

The retirement crisis striking women, especially those of color, isn't an everyday topic of conversation, but it's one that I think about often.

As a welfare counselor in Philadelphia, I see the struggles of elderly women all the time. Many of them need considerable support--SNAP benefits (food stamps), medical and heating assistance--because they have very little retirement income. If they have any retirement assets, it's usually a small pension or a Social Security benefit of less than $500 each month. Often, these are women who have worked all of their lives, but made less and saved less than men. Now, they're struggling with day-to-day expenses.

I wonder all the time how many more Pennsylvania workers will retire into that same predicament. As a public employee, I have a traditional defined benefit pension which has become the centerpiece of my retirement planning. It's the same type of plans that helped my parents and many of their neighbors enjoy a dignified retirement.

Although it's been difficult for me to build any other savings with the costs of raising a family and maintaining a household, I know I can count on this plan for retirement security. However, I'm worried about the talk of "pension reform" in Pennsylvania's Capitol. It leaves me wondering how these ideology-based measures will affect my future.

The governor's proposal could cost taxpayers anywhere from $5 billion to $13 billion over the next five years, according to the House Democratic Appropriation Committee. He wants to underpay what the state owes the pension system over the next four years. That's like not making the minimum payment on a credit card. Catching up on the payments and the lost investment returns will increase the cost to property taxpayers and the state by $13 billion in future decades.

He also wants to create a new 401(k)-style retirement plan for public workers. But it could cost taxpayers more than maintaining our current system while placing workers at increased risk of retiring into poverty. A 2011 study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston Collegeshows that households with 401(k)-style accounts have, on average, less than one-quarter of what is needed to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Will these plans leave my future co-workers seeking state assistance once they can no longer work? Also, will these proposals wreck the retirement prospects of my children if they follow in my footsteps by becoming public servants? I doubt a 401(k)-style plan will provide enough for them to have the same level of retirement security as myself or my parents.

My father was a police officer and my mother worked for the city of Philadelphia. Both are retired and between their modest pensions and Social Security, they are able to live well. In fact, public pension benefits helped my parents' generation build a strong black middle class.

But like the retirement crisis I mentioned earlier, this is a story that's left out of the pension talks at our state's Capitol. No one talks about how we have alternatives for raising more revenue that don't include drastic cuts to our pension systems. Why? It would mean ending some of the corporate tax loopholes that allow some companies to pay little or nothing in taxes in Pennsylvania.

What really gets me is that many of these initiatives are funded and pushed by very wealthy people and out-of-state organizations. These are people who don't have to worry about retirement. I would love for those folks to have to spend a day walking in the shoes of the women I assist on my job. They should know what it's like to make the tough choices of whether to pay for medicine or buy food. They should realize why I worry about retirement security for my children, who have fewer retirement options than I do.

I believe if these lawmakers and wealthy CEOs spent a day in our shoes, they would create the kinds of national and local policies that ensure retirement security for all and send fewer women to their local public welfare offices in their golden years.

Karmella Sams is a welfare counselor and vice chair of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 668 Chapter 12. Follow her on twitter at @KarmellaSams.