Gigantic pensions are rare

From a 2010 New York Times story:

The use of public money for outsize retirement pay really stings when budgets don’t balance, teachers are being laid off, furloughs are being planned and everything from poison-control centers to Alzheimer’s day care is being cut, as is happening in New York.

According to pension data collected by The New York Times from the city and state, about 3,700 retired public workers in New York are now getting pensions of more than $100,000 a year, exempt from state and local taxes. The data belie official reports that the average state pension is a modest $18,000, or $38,000 for retired police officers and firefighters. (The average is low, in part, because it includes people who worked in government only part time, or just a few years, as well as surviving spouses getting partial benefits.)

Roughly one of every 250 retired public workers in New York is collecting a six-figure pension, and that group is expected to grow rapidly in coming years, based on the number of highly paid people in the pipeline.

The data do not belie anything.  If the average pension is $18,000 (the median is presumably lower still) then it should be extremely rare for anyone to be drawing above $100K.  And it is.  But “Most public pensions in New York State are quite modest” isn’t much of a headline.

Every system can be gamed.  There will always be a few public employees and CEOs who get fat pensions they don’t deserve but are contractually entitled to.  There will always be a few rich people who find legal ways to avoid paying any taxes.  By all means, be vigilant about rules and structures to reduce the number of gamers as much as you can.  But don’t expect to get it down to zero, not if you want the system to be complicated enough to do its job.

(Note:  I don’t see how 3700 people can be 1 in 250 retired public workers; there can’t possibly be almost a million retirees from state service in New York, can there?  But however many there are, 3700 is a tiny fraction of them.)

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