To the editor:
In 1947, a retired public school principal from California named Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus discovered one of her retired teacher colleagues living in a chicken coop, struggling to survive on a meager pension, in poor health, with no means to obtain heath care. The discovery shocked Dr. Andrus to take actions that would serve to improve the lives of all older Americans for decades to follow.
An active leader in her California Retired Teachers Association, Dr. Andrus reached out to the handful of other state retired school employee organizations that then existed, including the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees (my employer), and united our organizations to form the National Retired Teachers' Association. Collectively, we lobbied our states and the federal government to enact laws to improve the condition of retired public servants, and we combined the buying power of our individual members to entice companies to produce products and services that individuals need during their later years, including health insurance for persons over the age of 65, which did not exist previously.
By no means were school retirees the only ones living in chicken coops back in 1947. As word of NRTA's successes for retired educators spread, increasing numbers of older persons who did not work in the public schools turned to NRTA for help. All aging Americans needed the means to advocate for themselves in a society that provided little help and completely ignored those who could no longer work and were forced to live in chicken coops and other hovels. In 1958, lead again by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, we helped establish the American Association of Retired Persons. What followed was a series of improvements in Social Security, the establishment of Medicare, elimination of age discrimination in our laws and practices, affordable benefits and services designed for seniors, etc. and millions of older Americans moving out of poverty.
I have watched with growing alarm the demise of defined benefit pension plans in the private sector and read the mounting body of evidence proving that the vast majority of people who now have a 401(k) plan and Social Security will accumulate nowhere near enough to pay their basic living expenses in retirement. I saw my own retirement account lose half its value twice in the past 10 years, first time when the entity managing my funds was implicated in an accounting scandal and again when the money managers on Wall Street wrecked our financial system by bundling and betting on bad mortgages. I witnessed first-hand the devastation that occurs when a person outlives his/her retirement savings, as I helped my mother sell everything she owned to pay her nursing home expenses.
The current drive to eliminate the defined benefit pension plans for Pennsylvania's retired public employees is being advocated by the very same groups and individuals who promoted the elimination of corporate pensions and who have been seeking to privatize and eliminate the guaranteed benefits provided by Social Security. The advocates of replacing defined benefit plans with individual retirement accounts and of privatizing Social Security are one and the same-ultraconservative, libertarian organizations seeking to dismantle any and all government-run programs, such as the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania, funded by Wall Street entities seeking to profit from managing our retirement savings. At what point do we say no to Wall Street and demand that our elected representatives work to strengthen the systems that enable us to obtain secure sources of income in retirement?
The advocates for eliminating pensions and privatizing Social Security enjoy scaring us with incomprehensible numbers-billions in unfunded public employee pension liabilities, trillions in Social Security shortfalls. The media loves to fuel controversy with stories about outrageous pension amounts that only a select few receive, most notably the benefits collected by retiring legislators who voted themselves far more lucrative pensions than what the typical state or school employee can receive. All this is intended to convince us that pensions and Social Security benefits are too generous, unsustainable, and need to be eliminated. Really?
The facts are that the average annual pension for a retired public school employee in Pennsylvania is $23,500, and the average annual Social Security benefit is $14,500. These are hardly overly generous amounts, considering that the average personal income for Pennsylvania residents is more than $41,000 per year. Eliminating all guaranteed sources of income in retirement, including pensions and Social Security, would only assure greater profits for Wall Street and a return to the chicken coops for our nation's seniors.
Richard C. Rowland
PASR Executive Director