The Betrayal of the American Dream: Where Did All Our Pensions Go?


This is a cross post from the AFL-CIO

by Jackie Tortora

A total of 84,350 pension plans have vanished since 1985. This figure shocked Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Donald L. Barlett and James W. Steele, who just released their latest book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.” Their chapter on retirement chronicles the heist of the American dream’s secure retirement by the financial elite and is a very important section of the book, says Steele, who spoke with the AFL-CIO about the retirement crisis. Steele says there is another number we should pay attention to: $17,686. That’s the median value of 401(k) accounts in 2011. For most working people, the amount in their 401(k) account would pay them less than $80 a month for life.

“What’s happening with retirement is almost parallel to what you see happening in other parts of the economy,” says Steele.

“The elite has its agenda to eliminate pensions with the shift to 401(k)s, which cost companies less. Now, there’s a revenue stream for Wall Street and an obligation shift to people with little or no experience understanding how to deal with their own retirement issues….This is typical of all the other things the economy elite has been doing for decades with deregulation, unrestricted free trade and tax cuts—these things are all related.”

“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the amount of workers with access to pensions was significantly rising,” says Steele. “We fully underestimated the speed in which the downturn would occur, and how Congress went along and encouraged it.”

Barlett and Steele write that the shift from defined-benefit pension plans to 401(k)s began in the 1980s. Companies realized 401(k)s would substantially reduce corporate costs. Workers were told that pensions no longer made sense and were outdated since people moved around from job to job. The 401(k) was marketed as more “portable.”

Steele says 401(k)s were engineered by corporations as another way for the wealthy executives to set aside money. They were never intended to be a principal retirement plan, only a supplement.

“Once corporate America got on to this, the idea took root,” says Steele. “The entire obligation shifted to the employees.”

Congress ignored the concerns raised by trade unions and other pension rights organizations. And the consequences are dire for middle- and lower-income workers.

“This is so typical of what has been happening over the last two to three decades,” says Steele. “This is the slow, steady erosion of economic security Americans had (or thought they had)….Now economic pundits, corporate folks and Wall Street people are saying people just have to work longer, in part because retirement plans now in place will not provide much security to people as they get older.”

Barlett and Steele feature stories of average people who did everything right (saved, worked hard) but are still living on the edge of poverty because of policies that enhance the rich at the expense of everyone else.

For the rest of this article, click here.

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