Public Sector Pensions in the United States



Although employer-provided retirement plans are a relatively recent phenomenon in the private sector, dating from the late nineteenth century, public sector plans go back much further in history. From the Roman Empire to the rise of the early-modern nation state, rulers and legislatures have provided pensions for the workers who administered public programs. Military pensions, in particular, have a long history, and they have often been used as a key element to attract, retain, and motivate military personnel. In the United States, pensions for disabled and retired military personnel predate the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

Like military pensions, pensions for loyal civil servants date back centuries. Prior to the nineteenth century, however, these pensions were typically handed out on a case-by-case basis; except for the military, there were few if any retirement plans or systems with well-defined rules for qualification, contributions, funding, and so forth. Most European countries maintained some type of formal pension system for their public sector workers by the late nineteenth century. Although a few U.S. municipalities offered plans prior to 1900, most public sector workers were not offered pensions until the first decades of the twentieth century. Teachers, firefighters, and police officers were typically the first non-military workers to receive a retirement plan as part of their compensation.

By 1930, pension coverage in the public sector was relatively widespread in the United States, with all federal workers being covered by a pension and an increasing share of state and local employees included in pension plans. In contrast, pension coverage in the private sector during the first three decades of the twentieth century remained very low, perhaps as low as 10 to 12 percent of the labor force (Clark, Craig, and Wilson 2003). Even today, pension coverage is much higher in the public sector than it is in the private sector. Over 90 percent of public sector workers are covered by an employer-provided pension plan, whereas only about half of the private sector work force is covered (Employee Benefit Research Institute 1997).

Author(s): Lee A. Craig, North Carolina State University

Publication Date: 16 March 2003, accessed 8 Oct 2022

Publication Site: EH.Net Encyclopedia

Citation: Craig, Lee. “Public Sector Pensions in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2003. URL