Thursday, March 3, 2011

Get specific on pensions.

Given the current debate about public-employee benefits, I think it’s important for journalists to traffic in facts, not just rhetoric. If you are writing a piece that includes arguments about teacher pensions, for example, give some numbers to show what those pensions look like. A friend of mine worked for 19 years in a school system in one of the nation’s most affluent counties; his monthly pension is $907. Is that low? Is that high?

What about other benefits for educators? What do their health plans look like exactly? What do they get to negotiate for in collective bargaining besides wages and benefits? What exactly does “summers off” mean?

Readers can judge for themselves, if we give them the tools with which to do so. With all of this stuff being hotly contested, it is important to provide as many specifics as you can.


  1. The man's pension is pitiful....Just pitiful....

  2. Yes, sound advice. We need more of that deeper research and data in order to give much needed context to the debates. Any news that trades in highly decontextualized rhetoric (FOX news, anybody?) can not only be misleading, but furthermore dangerous to the operation of a viable democracy.

  3. It's not just facts about the numbers. There also needs to be more accuracy about the structure of pensions. For example, the media often imply that pensions are a government give away, when workers actually contribute to them through payroll deductions.

    Another issue that is alternately ignored or misrepresented is the cause of the unfunded pension liabilities. Again, the media often imply that it is the greed of the public sector workers, when in reality it is the declining values of the pensions' holdings, a result of the financial collapse which was caused by the greed and corruption of bankers and Wall Street speculators.

    One more factor that seldom gets mentioned is that teachers can no longer collect social security, even if they paid into it during a previous career. This is money that people earned and ought to be able to get back during retirement (indeed, did get back until the rules were changed recently). Thus, if public sector pensions are allowed to collapse, there will be a large number of retirees forced into poverty, unable to collect either their public sector pension or social security.

    In terms of numbers, they love to complain about 6-figure pensions which are actually exceedingly rare, and only earned by a few retired administrators, not by teachers.