Thursday, October 22, 2009


Mark Brenner, Counterpunch - Nobody wants to admit it, but the next casualty of the Wall Street meltdown will probably be your golden years. For years corporations have been trying to choke the life out of traditional pensions, working hard to get out from under the risk-and the cost-of providing for their retirees. Between last year's credit crunch and changes to federal pension laws, they may get their wish.

Nearly $4 trillion worth of retirement savings were wiped out in the first weeks of the 2008 financial freefall. Half of the drop was concentrated in traditional pension plans, also known as defined-benefit plans. While most workers in these plans haven't had their monthly benefits cut, unlike the 46 million people riding the stock market with 401(k) defined-contribution plans, the storm clouds are gathering.

Even before the financial crisis, traditional pensions were a vanishing breed. Thirty years ago more than a third of the private sector workforce had traditional pensions. Last year that number was down to 16 percent.

Driving the decline were employers looking to get off cheap, eliminating pensions entirely when they could get away with it, and when they couldn't, shifting to 401(k)s. These programs were legalized in 1978 and were originally designed to supplement traditional pensions. Now they're choking them out like kudzu.

Corporations got a great deal, paying about half what they used to towards their workers' retirement by the '90s. Even more important-as anyone who has opened their 401(k) statement recently can attest-the move shifted risk off companies and onto us.

Traditional pensions were a collective solution to a collective problem. Young and old contributing together smoothed out insecurity for all. Now it's just you and the stock market-with far less in your pocket.

Even before the crash, studies showed that 401(k)s leave workers with 10 to 33 percent of what traditional pensions provide. Given the 30-year squeeze on wages, most people haven't saved much either, which explains why more than half of all 401(k) participants have less than $75,000 when they retire.

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