Retired Oklahoma state and local public servants have now gone 10 years without a cost of living adjustment, while inflation has eaten away at their income. For decades they taught our children, kept our streets safe, guarded prisons, fought fires, and provided essential health and social services. They dedicated their lives to making our state better. Now it’s past time to repay our debt to them. We should start on this by providing a long-overdue cost of living adjustment (COLA).
Retirees are struggling to meet their basic needs as inflation eats away at their benefits
Public employment has long been a path to the middle class, particularly for women and people of color, who are better represented in government jobs than in the workforce as a whole. Women older than 65 typically have 25 percent lower income than men, and participating in traditional public retirement systems narrows that gap. Pensions are equally important for Blacks, who lost wealth during the great recession and afterwards. They also typically have very low levels of retirement savings.
Robust retirement benefits help keep our retired public servants in the middle class. Inadequate benefits can make it difficult or impossible to keep up with costs like health care, utilities, and food, let alone enjoying the “golden years.” This is particularly a challenge for firefighters, highway patrol officers, and some teachers, who were not allowed to participate in Social Security.
Oklahoma has made that challenge for retirees a lot harder over the last decade. In our state, retirees get a benefit increase only when approved by the Legislature. The last COLA was granted in 2008, eleven years ago. The average state employee who retired that year had — and still has — a benefit of $1,303 per month. Since they retired, inflation has lowered the value of that benefit to $1,042 in today’s dollars. Worse yet, premiums for retiree health insurance have climbed 42 percent, more than double the rate of inflation. Health insurance alone can take up half or more of the monthly retirement check.
Who are our retired Oklahoma public servants?
There are 118,443 retirees as of July 1, 2019. While retirement systems do not provide age breakdowns of retirees, OK Policy conservatively estimates that one in seven Oklahomans older than 65 benefits from state retirement pay. The figure below shows a breakdown of retirees. Teachers and state employees constitute more than 80 percent of our retirees. Slightly more than half, 53 percent, are female. The average retiree is 72 years old and receives a monthly benefit of $1,600.
Employees, employers, and the state all contribute to retirement systems, which are supplemented through investments
Most state, city, and school employees are required to participate in one of six state-operated retirement or pension systems. With the exception of some recently hired state employees, all who serve long enough qualify for a defined benefit, which is a fixed monthly payment that depends on years of service and the salary earned in the last three to five years of a career.
Retirement benefits are paid from funds restricted only for retirement. The retirement funds come from four different sources. Employees pay a percentage of their monthly pay into the retirement fund. Their employers, like state agencies, school districts, or local police or fire departments, pay a percentage of payroll. State taxes provide additional funding for some of the retirement funds. All of these receipts are invested so that the balance of the fund grows enough to pay current and future retirement benefits. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, investment earnings pay nearly 55 percent of pension costs, so the state gets a great return on the first three sources of funds.
A COLA is a good start, but we can and must do better
HB 2304 by Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, and Rep. Avery Frix, R-Muskogee, would provide a 2 percent cost of living adjustment for all retirees. This measure passed the House last year and was referred to the legislative actuary for a cost estimate. The bill will come up again in the 2020 session and Rep. Frix has indicated a desire to increase the COLA. The COLA would permanently raise every retiree’s benefit by 4 percent. That’s a good step, but it restores only about one-fifth of the purchasing power lost by retirees since their last COLA.
At a legislative study on COLAs, Rep. David Perryman,D-Chickasha, stated, “You shouldn’t retire people into poverty…Our failure to approve a cost of living adjustment will put them there within a few short years.” That’s not what we promised these public servants when they took their jobs, or when they retired. A COLA of at least 4 percent should enacted this year.
COLA is a smart investment for the future
A COLA is not just the right thing to do for our public servants; it’s also a good investment in Oklahoma. More than 90 percent of our retirees live and spend their money in our state. The National Institute on Retirement Security estimates that state pension spending supports 24,160 jobs in the state, adding $1.1 billion to Oklahoma’s economy. A 4 percent COLA would thus inject $44 million into our economy statewide.
Beyond this session, the state will have other opportunities to improve our retirement systems. Oklahoma’s public servants gave decades of their lives to make our communities healthier, better educated, safer, and stronger. in exchange for their service, we owe them a strong, well-funded retirement system — one that includes regular cost-of-living adjustments to account for rising inflation.
The author is a retired state employee.