Journalism

The Great Retirement Ripoff: The Broken Promise

October 31, 2005

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Who's Left Holding the Bag?

In the meantime, pension plans that companies are dumping are so short of assets that the PBGC's financial position is rapidly deteriorating. In 2000, the agency operated with a $ 10 billion surplus. By 2004, the surplus had turned into a $ 23 billion deficit. By the end of this year, the shortfall may top $ 30 billion. As the Government Accountability Office put it earlier this year: "PBGC's accumulated deficit is too big, and plans simply do not have enough money in the system to back up the long-term promises many employers have made to their workers." To add to its woes, the agency has a record 350 active bankruptcy cases, according to Bradley D. Belt, executive director. Of those, Belt told Congress, "37 have underfunding claims of $ 100 million or more, including six in excess of $ 500 million."

Congress idly watched United Airlines and USAirways unload their pension obligations on the PBGC. Now Delta and Northwest are positioned to do the same. That increases the likelihood that other old-line carriers like American and Continental will be forced to do likewise. Northwest's CEO, Douglas Steenland, bluntly told the Senate Finance Committee last June, "Northwest has concluded that defined-benefit plans simply do not work for an industry that is as competitive and vulnerable from forces ranging from terrorism to international oil prices that are largely beyond its control, as is the airline industry." In that, he merely echoed Robert Crandall, former chief of American Airlines, who told another Senate committee in October 2004: "All the [older] legacy carriers must get rid of their defined-benefit pension plans." In all, the pension funds of those airlines are short $ 22 billion.

The sudden shift from annual pensions of a guaranteed amount for a lifetime to a lesser and uncertain amount for a limited period is taking its toll on workers. Robin Gilinger, 42, a United flight attendant for 14 years, sees a frightening financial picture. She has another 14 years to go before she can take early retirement. Under the old pension plan she would have received a monthly check of $ 2,184. Because of givebacks, that's down to $ 776—a poverty-level annual income of $ 9,312 by today's standards, even before inflation takes its toll over the coming years. And there is the distinct possibility it could be less than that. Her husband lost his pension in a corporate takeover.

Gilinger, who lives with her husband and 9-year-old daughter in Mount Laurel, N.J., is not planning on early retirement and certainly couldn't afford it in the current situation. But she has concerns reminiscent of Joy Whitehouse's experience. "It's scary. What if something happened to my husband or if I got disabled?" she asks. "Then I'm looking at nothing. Above all, what's frustrating is that we were told we were going to get our pension and we're not. The senior flight attendants, the ones who've worked 30 years, they're worried how they're going to survive." Each time the PBGC takes on another failed pension plan, it makes the pension-insurance program more expensive for the remaining businesses. That in turn prompts other companies to unload their plans. The PBGC receives no tax money. Its revenue comes from investment income and premiums that corporations pay on their insured workers. As a result, soundly managed companies with solid retirement plans are compelled to pick up the costs for plans in mismanaged companies as well as those that just want to unload their employee benefits. A proposal by the Bush Administration to overhaul the system, critics fear, would actually increase the likelihood that more companies will kill existing plans and that other companies considering establishment of a defined-benefit plan will choose a less expensive option. An analysis of 471 FORTUNE 1000 companies by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm, concluded "healthy companies would see their total PBGC premiums increase 240% under the proposal, more than double the 113% increase for financially troubled employers."

Barring a reversal in government policies, the PBGC could require a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. The last time that happened was during the 1980s and '90s, when another government insurer, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., was unable to keep up with a thrift industry spinning out of control. The Federal Government eventually spent $ 124 billion. Unlike the FSLIC, which was backed by the U.S. government, the PBGC is not. That means an indifferent Congress could turn its back on the retirement crash. By the agency's estimate, that would translate into a 90% reduction in pensions it currently pays.

Where the 401(K) Falls Short

The universal replacement to the pension, by the consensus of the Bush Administration, Congress, Wall Street and corporate America, is the ubiquitous 401(k). As Bush explained at a gathering at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., earlier this year, "When I was young, I didn't know anything about 401(k)s because I don't think they existed. Defined-benefit plans were the main source of retirement. Now they've got what they call defined-contribution plans. Workers are taking aside some of their own money and watching it grow through safe and secure investments."

Tell that "safe and secure" part to the folks at Enron, who lost $ 1 billion in their 401(k)s. Or WorldCom employees, who also lost $ 1 billion. Or Kmart employees, who lost at least $ 100 million. Welcome to the 21st century version of Studebaker.

Truth to tell, the 401(k) was never intended as a retirement plan. It evolved out of a tax break that Congress awarded to corporate executives in 1978, allowing them to defer part of their salaries and cut their tax bills. At the time, federal income-tax rates were much higher for upper-income individuals—the top rate was 70%. (Today it's half that.) It wasn't until several years later that companies began to make 401(k)s available to most employees. Even then, the idea was to encourage saving and provide a tax shelter, not to substitute the plans for pensions. By 1985, assets in 401(k)s had risen to $ 91 billion, as more companies adopted plans. Still, the amount was only about one-tenth that in guaranteed pensions.

All that changed as corporations discovered they could improve their bottom lines by shifting workers out of costly defined-benefit plans and into much cheaper (for companies) and more risky (for workers) uninsured 401(k)s. In effect, employees took a hefty pay cut and barely seemed to notice. Lawmakers and supporters advocated the move by pointing to a changing economy in which employees switch jobs frequently. They maintained that because defined-benefit plans are based on length of service and an average of salaries over the last few years of work, they don't meet today's needs. But Congress could have revised the rules and made the plans portable over a working life, just like a 401(k), and retained the guarantee of a fixed retirement amount, just like corporations do for their executives.

As it is, 401(k) portability often impedes efforts to save for retirement. As today's job hoppers move from one employer to another, most succumb to the temptation to cash out their 401(k)s and spend the money, a practice hardly reflective of a serious retirement system. Today $ 2 trillion is invested in those accounts. But to understand why the 401(k) is no substitute for a defined-benefit pension, look beneath that big number. Earlier this year the airwaves crackled with announcements that the value of the average 401(k) had climbed to $ 61,000 in 2004. Noticeably absent from many accounts was any reference to the median value, a more accurate indicator of the health of America's retirement system. That number was $ 17,909, meaning half held less, half more. Nearly 1 in 4 accounts had a balance of less than $ 5,000.

So it is that in the end, all but the most affluent citizens will have two options. They can join Joy Whitehouse in the can-collection business, or they can follow in the footsteps of Betty Dizik of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is into her sixth decade as a working American. She has no choice. Dizik did not lose her pension. Like most Americans, she never had one, or a 401(k). After her husband died in 1968, she held a series of jobs managing apartments and self-storage facilities, tasks that brought her into contact with the public. "I like working with people," she said. But none of the jobs had a pension.

Hence the importance of her monthly Social Security check, which comes to less than $ 1,000. The benefit barely covers her medications for heart problems and diabetes, which she says can cost her as much as $ 800 a month. The new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, she estimates, will still leave her with substantial out-of-pocket expenses. To pay rent, utilities, gas for her car and other living expenses, Dizik has continued to work since she turned 65. For 10 years, she was with Broward County Meals on Wheels, which provides meals to seniors, some younger than she is. But three years ago, when she turned 75, driving 100 miles a day began exacting a toll.

Now she works at a nearby office of H&R Block, the tax- return service. "I do everything there," she says. "I am the receptionist. The cashier. I open the office, close the office. I'm the one who takes the money to the bank. I do taxes." A widow, she lives alone in an apartment building for seniors. Her four children help with the rent, but she is reluctant to accept anything more. "All my children are great, but I do not like to ask them for anything," she said. "I'm waiting for myself to get old, when I will need their help." For the time being, she says, "I'm going strong. I have to."

She doesn't have much hope that Washington will be able to help seniors like her. "They don't understand what it's like to worry: Are you going to be able to make it every month, to pay the telephone bill, the electric bill? How much are you going to have left over for food and other expenses?" Her key to getting by each month is forcing herself to live within a strict budget. "You learn to live very carefully," she said. Although Dizik really would like to retire, she can't. "I will be working the rest of my life." Soon, she will have lots of company.

— With Reporting by Laura Karmatz, Lisa McLAughlin and Dody Tsiantar and research by Joan Levinstein.

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