The Sustainability of State and Local Government Pensions: A Public Finance Approach




In this paper we explore the fiscal sustainability of U.S. state and local government pensions plans.
Specifically, we examine if under current benefit and funding policies state and local pension plans
will ever become insolvent, and, if so, when. We then examine the fiscal cost of stabilizing pension
debt as a share of the economy and examine the cost associated with delaying such stabilization
into the future. We find that, despite the projected increase in the ratio of beneficiaries to workers
as a result of population aging, state and local government pension benefit payments as a share of
the economy are currently near their peak and will eventually decline significantly. This previously
undocumented pattern reflects the significant reforms enacted by many plans which lower benefits
for new hires and cost-of-living adjustments often set beneath the expected pace of inflation.
Under low or moderate asset return assumptions, we find that few plans are likely to exhaust their
assets over the next few decades. Nonetheless, under these asset returns plans are currently not
sustainable as pension debt is set to rise indefinitely; plans will therefore need to take action to
reach sustainability. But the required fiscal adjustments are generally moderate in size and in all
cases are substantially lower than the adjustments required under the typical full prefunding
benchmark. We also find generally modest returns, if any, to starting this stabilization process
now versus a decade in the future. Of course, there is significant heterogeneity with some plans
requiring very large increases to stabilize their pension debt.

Author(s): Jamie Lenney, Bank of England
Byron Lutz, Federal Reserve Board of Governors
Finn Schüle, Brown University
Louise Sheiner, Brookings Institution

Publication Date: 25 March 2021

Publication Site: Brookings