Marin IJ Editorial Board
Mar 12, 2023
The Marin IJ Editorial Board writes this week in support of research by UC Berkeley Labor Center's Dr. Nari Rhee, in her 3rd Marin Pension Brief. The brief found that women and people of color who receive a pension after retiring from careers as public employees are significantly better off financially than those who rely on the retirement benefits or investment accounts offered by private businesses - both in Marin and across California!
To read Dr. Rhee's third pension brief, "How Public Pensions Support Race and Gender Equity", click here.
The issues facing public pension systems in Marin – at the county level as well as some of the retirement compensation systems for municipalities within – are well documented.
Public employees, fair-taxation watchdogs and elected officials have all expressed concerns about the possibility of future unfunded pension liabilities. A benefit that once attracted some of the best and brightest to public service has now been targeted by some as opulent and unaffordable for the community to continue to support at a level that once seemed reasonable.
But a recently released study by the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education has put a new lens on the importance of public pensions. The study was illuminating for pension systems across the state, but especially in places like Marin County, where people of color and women have long had trouble earning comparable compensation to White men in all professions.
The study shows that women and people of color who receive a pension after retiring from careers as public employees are significantly better off financially than those who rely on the retirement benefits or investment accounts offered by private businesses.
According to the research, public pensions appear to be a driving force for equity. The county hires women and people of color at a higher rate than the private sector does, so the importance of pension programs as an equity driver in Marin is clear.
None of us should forget that, in 2018, Marin was named the most inequitable county for people of color in the state by the Advancement Project California. In 2021, the county clawed its way to being second on that list. Clearly, Marin still has a lot of equity work ahead.
The Berkeley study makes it clear: Public pensions are part of the solution for the equity problem in Marin. This is true regardless of how you feel about the study or the funding to Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. Yes, concerns have been raised (most recently by the Employment Policies Institute) about funding for the institute coming from state labor unions.
However, assertions about bias toward unionized labor groups won’t change the data showing that the county workforce includes about 39% people of color, compared to about 29% in the general population. Nor does it change the fact that having a pension in retirement can help people live a comfortable, more equitable life after retirement.
All of this brings an obvious goal into further focus for elected officials and civic administrators: Counties and municipalities in Marin must continue to look for ways to keep public pensions in place while at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. Additionally, we should all remember that many public employees do not pay into Social Security – that may be good in the short term, but it does remove a safety net many rely on after retirement.
In actuality, this study exposes the problem of retirement compensation for Marin residents working for private businesses, as contractors or for themselves. Many people in those groups have no 401(k) retirement plans. Residents in that situation must save for the golden years by putting money away on their own. That can be impossible for anyone trying to make ends meet in a costly place like Marin.
It’s true, public pension programs are not as robust as they used to be. Heavily taxed residents are pushing back to create accountability. That’s for the best and, one by one, stories of Marin retirees pulling in huge pensions from multiple sources will disappear.
But now is not the time to eliminate equity-driving programs like public pensions.
Despite the continued push to rein them in, public pensions continue to be a draw for talented, hardworking professionals with transferable skills. In the long run, having those people working for the county or Marin municipalities is good for all county residents.