With a headline like "Public Workers Draining State, Local Pension Funds," I guess you know what to expect from Karen Tumulty's article in the Washington Post today (3/8/11). It appears the story's headline was changed somewhere along the way, but unfortunately the headline wasn't the only problem.
Her lead paragraph introduces an obviously unrepresentative case–a guy who somehow had four government jobs in one California town, and thus is enjoying a $500,000 pension. Tumulty writes:
Deals like the one he got rankle Californians at a time when the state's public employee pension plans are "dangerously underfunded, the result of overly generous benefit promises, wishful thinking and an unwillingness to plan prudently."
Down in the seventh paragraph, readers learn:
Fat pensions like Malkenhorst's are not typical, of course. AFSCME, which is the largest public-employee union, says that its average member earns less than $45,000 a year and receives an annual pension of roughly $19,000.
Oh, OF COURSE the lead example is not at all typical. That's Journalism 101!
Don't let those union numbers fool you–Tumulty gets word from a group to undermine the union's case:
But many retirees from state and local government jobs do much better than that. When the advocacy group California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility requested state retirement system records in 2009, it discovered that nearly 15,000 of the state's retired government employees were receiving pensions of more than $100,000 a year, with Malkenhorst topping the list.
Of course, there's a tremendous difference between the "average" pension and what "many retirees" are getting.
Tumulty then tries to claim that there's a broader sense of public outrage over pensions:
Fueling the backlash is the fact that the retirement system for government workers, especially on the state and local level, has become by many measures a significantly better deal than that available to most people who work for the private sector.
Tumulty is absolutely right about one thing, though:
What makes headlines, however, are the stories of workers who exploit the loopholes.