The New York Times and Washington Post report today on a new study by the Pew Center on the States regarding unfunded state and local pension and health costs for retirees.
Let’s just look at the health costs. Pew finds that state governments have promised their workers $370 billion of retiree health care that they have not put money aside for. Unless those benefits are cut, that figure represents the looming hit on future taxpayers.
But Pew only looks at state governments, which employ 4.3 million people, according to Census data. Local governments employ 11.8 million people. If the local health care problem is as big as the state problem, the total state/local unfunded amount would be $1.4 trillion.
Interestingly, that is precisely the figure that Jagadeesh Gokhale and I came up with when we looked at this problem last year. We estimated that state and local governments have racked up about $1.4 trillion in unfunded retiree health costs.
Our study and the Pew study highlight two fundamental problems. First, governments have been irresponsible in making huge promises to workers regarding future benefits, but then not funding them as private benefit plans would.
Second, “public sector employees are far more likely to receive retirement benefits [than private sector employees] and the gulf between private and public sectors continues to grow,” according to Pew. For example, 82 percent of government workers receive retiree health benefits, compared to just 33 percent of private sector workers.
The solution is to cut back sharply on the gold-plated benefits received by government workers, while privatizing as many state and local activities as possible.