America has a retirement crisis

America has a retirement crisis
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I know all eyes are on Washington these days, watching to see what the Trump administration and Congress will do next. But retired teachers in Kentucky, and in other states across the country, are focused a little closer to home. This is the time of year when state governments make budget decisions and pass laws that will affect the education, jobs, health care, law enforcement and more in our communities. Governors and state legislators will show what issues are most important to them as they balance many competing interests in difficult financial times.

Here in Kentucky, the legislature has taken it a step further by threatening the pensions of hardworking public employees and retirees like me. They continue to threaten our health insurance and pre-funded cost of living adjustments, as well as shift future teachers away from defined benefit plans. These pieces of legislation not only affect how our state is run, but they will affect the recruitment and retention of teachers and our wallets as well.

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As they write these budgets and laws, I urge governors and state legislators to protect the pensions of public employees like firefighters and teachers because cutting them is a risky economic gamble, bad for our schools, and a betrayal of fundamental American values. We need to get back to valuing hard work, keeping our promises, and strengthening our local economies.

I was a music educator for 40 years in Kentucky. I taught thousands of children and helped make an impact on their lives. I am single and have been a caregiver for many of my family members. I chose a teaching career because I am not only passionate about music, but because I care about the future of Kentucky, which is our children.

When I took the job early in my career, my pay was very little in comparison with others who were more experienced, and it stayed that way up until my last day in the classroom. My first day, I signed a contract with the state. I would pay 9.105 percent toward my pension and 3.75 percent toward my health care with every paycheck. I was opted out of Social Security benefits, because Kentucky promised me a defined benefit pension plan and the opportunity for a health-care provision to last me through my retirement.

Unfortunately, the state of Kentucky didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. My entire career, I paid into the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, but the state did not. It often skipped payments, paid partially, or deferred payments to the following year. Now, I stand here being blamed for our underfunded pension system.

This is not just an issue in Kentucky. This is happening all across America. State lawmakers and governors have not paid adequately into their pension systems and when the systems become underfunded, they shift blame to public employees. Then, almost in predictable lockstep, organizations like the Pew Research Center, the Reason Foundation, and the Retirement Security Initiative come in and promise the golden goose of fixes: Close your pension system and move to a 401(k). This is not a solution. 401(k)s cost more for the state and do not provide an adequate retirement for any worker.

Public pensions are a tradition for a reason: They made the American dream possible for generations. As they spread across the country from the 1940s through the 1960s, suddenly seniors who had worked all their lives were freed from the desperation and poverty that awaited them in earlier decades. More could safely retire. Young workers were incentivized to work hard and accept demanding jobs, knowing they would be compensated for their efforts. The system wasn’t perfect, but at least it rewarded grit and steadfastness, which are good for our economy and our culture.

Today, many companies have abandoned pensions, gambling on risky 401(k)s. We can all see the effects of those decisions. Seniors are retiring without adequate incomes to support themselves, forcing them to work until they die, mostly in low-income jobs, which puts a massive strain on our economy. With fewer and fewer pensions offered in the private sector, a retirement crisis is on the not too distant horizon. Now, states are considering making the same fatal mistake.

But this is about more than the numbers. It’s about what values our states stand for and what kind of economy we want to build. Communities have long recognized that after many years doing demanding, vital jobs, often for less pay than they could have earned in the private sector, public servants should get paid what they have earned.

When a state cuts pensions, it signals that our hard work isn’t valued anymore. This is not the message you want to send to your kids or to attract the best people. It replaces self-sufficiency and dignity in old age with dependence and uncertainty. No wonder 80 percent of citizens agree that attacks on pensions have made it harder to achieve the American dream. I urge all governors and state legislators to protect pensions of all public employees.

Deborah A. Murrell is co-chairman of the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association. She taught music for 40 years throughout Kentucky.