NEW YORK (MainStreet) Some city and state government-sponsored pension plans may be struggling to remain solvent, but employees in more than a few states are retiring with some of the best benefits in the nation. So says a report dubbing "public pension millionaires" among the "richest retirees" in their states contrary to the belief that such plans provide only a modest retirement benefit.
"In presenting their benefits as "modest," public pension plans and employee advocates commonly cite low average payments to retirees," writes Andrew G. Biggs, in a report for the American Enterprise Institute, a non-partisan think tank. "For instance, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCE) declares that 'the average AFSCME member receives a pension of approximately $19,000 per year after a career of public service.' This statement is false: for those who spend a career in government, public-sector pensions are far more generous."
Biggs compared the total retirement incomes for full-career state employees, including both pension benefits and Social Security retirement benefits, to the earnings of full-time, full-year employees in each state.
"Full-career public employees retiring today receive pension benefits that place them among the highest-income retirees in their states," Biggs says. "In the average state, an average full-career state government employee has a combined pension and Social Security income higher than 72% of full-time employees working in that state."
In considering the total benefits paid out over the course of an employee's retirement, Biggs says many state systems produce what could be called "pen¬sion millionaires" -- employees who will receive more than $1 million in lifetime retirement benefits.
"A full-career state government employee in the average state receives a lifetime retirement benefit with a present value of $768,940," Biggs says. "This means, for instance, that a worker who retires with a 401(k) balance of $768,940 could provide for himself a retirement income similar to that received by a typical full-career state government employee."
The report reveals that the state with the most generous public retirement benefits is Nevada, where the average full-career employee will receive more than $1.3 million in pension benefits over the course of retirement. Lifetime benefits exceed $1.2 million in the next four most-generous states: Alaska, California, Colorado, and Oregon. "Public pension millionaires" are also found in high cost of living states like Connecticut where a typical full-career employee receives more than $1 million in lifetime benefits, as does a retiree in the comparatively low-cost state of West Virginia.
However, the paper also notes Boston College research that says nearly half (47%) of workers leave state and local pension plans without any promise of future benefits. It is common for short-term public employees to receive no retirement benefits, while those who work for only ten years or so often receive minimal benefits.
"It would be rare to find any full-career public employee who would receive a more generous pension in a private-sector job," Biggs writes. "Public employees should be will¬ing to accept -- and private-sector workers to demand -- more equity in the generosity of their pension plans."
--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet