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Where Did All Our Pensions Go?

The Betrayal of the American Dream

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 occu, 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 Workers were told that pensions no longer made sense and were outdated since people moved around from job to job.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. 

Over and over again, people thought they had something good. They were working hard and then, through no fault of their own, lost it all. Most people we talked to in the book are employed.

People thought it was something they had done to lose their job or benefits....They didn’t realize it was part of a broader pattern. There are great swaths of working people who are affected and we think it's our fault. For most of these people, it's not their fault, it's just the way policy has been organized. Systematically dismantling pensions and retirement is the perfect example.

With the decline of pensions, it's even more important to strengthen, not cut, Social Security benefits. Although the country dodged a bullet in 2005, when Bush's plan for Social Security privatization fizzled, Steele says we still need to be vigilant to protect our benefits from the Wall Street casino. 

Don and I make this point that the 2008 recession wouldn't look a whole lot different from the Great Depression if we didn't have Social Security and Medicare because there was no safety net then. 

The economic elite, says Steele, attack Social Security because it's a large pool of money for Wall Street to play with. 

Nobody should kid themselves that they're not going to come back and try to implement some parts of that [privatization]....The amount of money at stake is too good and that’s all they care about—access to that money, not American workers. 

You can purchase "The Betrayal of the American Dream," on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com

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