Over three-quarters — 77% — of Americans believe that all workers should have access to a pension plan, according to research from the National Institute on Retirement Security. Two-thirds feel that pensions promise a more secure retirement than the ubiquitous 401(k) plan.
Americans’ support for pensions isn’t surprising considering the current state of retirement insecurity. More than two-thirds of respondents believe the country is facing a retirement crisis, and 56% are worried about their own prospects for financial uncertainty in retirement.
“The past several decades have seen dramatic changes to the U.S. retirement system that have undermined retirement for large portions of the U.S. workforce,” authors Dan Doonan and Kelly Kenneally wrote in the report. “Much of the workforce lacks an employer-sponsored retirement plan, fewer workers have stable and secure defined benefit pensions, while 401(k)-style defined contribution individual accounts shift costs and risks to workers and typically lack lifetime income that pools longevity risks.”
The report, “Americans’ Views Of State & Local Employee Retirement Plans,” surveyed over 1,200 adults in December 2020.
Citing research from the U.S. Census Bureau, NIRS found that pensions provided an average benefit payment of $2,335 per month in 2018 to over 11 million retirees and beneficiaries.
Doonan and Kenneally noted that public sector pensions were able to withstand much of the volatility caused by the pandemic in 2020. Public pension assets as of the third quarter had doubled since 2009 to $4.78 trillion, “all while reliably pumping hundreds of billions of dollars annually into the economy,” they noted.
Unlike other public benefit programs, like Medicare for All, support for expanding access to pensions held across party lines. Roughly eight out of 10 respondents from all parties supported pensions for all, including 75% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats.
In the post-pandemic era, with the nature of work dramatically shifting as employers adjust to increased demand for hybrid workforces amid recovering unemployment, pensions provide employers with valuable tools to attract and retain workers.
Two sectors in particular — teachers and public safety workers — face challenges maintaining their workforce as a result of the pandemic. NIRS found job satisfaction among teachers dropped dramatically between March 2020 and October 2020 (from 69% to 44%), while 48% of public sector workers in general said they were taking bigger risks at work than their pay justified.
The report found broad support for providing pensions for teachers, with 69% of respondents saying they should have a pension plan to compensate for their low wages. Respondents were even more supportive (76%) of providing pensions for people in high-risk or physically demanding jobs.
However, advocates for defined contribution plans are still calling for replacing public employees’ pensions with 401(k)-style plans, “even though the same benefits cost nearly twice as much due to their inherent economic inefficiency, and despite the evidence that this change fails to reduce costs to taxpayers and undermines the public sector workforce where the career model of employment is still enjoyed in our communities,” the authors wrote.