Re-Envisioning Retirement Security: Remarks by Karen Ferguson

The following remarks were made by Karen Ferguson, Director of the Pension Rights Center on October 21, 2009 at the Re-Envisioning Retirement Security conference.

Good morning. I am Karen Ferguson, Director of the Pension Rights Center.

On behalf of the Center, and the other conveners of Retirement USA –

the AFL-CIO, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Service Employees International Union – I’m pleased to welcome you to today’s conference on “Re-Envisioning Retirement Security.”

What is Retirement USA? It is a national initiative launched this spring to work toward a future retirement income system that, together with Social Security, will be Universal, Secure, and Adequate. The “U,” the “S,” and the “A” in our name.  

At our launch in March at the National Press Club we announced 12 “Principles for a New Retirement System.” You will be hearing a great deal about these principles this morning. We are pleased to announce that 19 organizations have already signed on to join the five conveners in supporting the principles – and we hope others will sign on after the conference. You can see the names of the supporters in your packets – and on the sign.

At the time of the launch we issued a call for proposals that meet the 12 principles. So far we have received 24, and expect more in the weeks and months to come. This afternoon you will be hearing about six of these innovative and far-reaching proposals.

Today may well mark a turning point in U.S. retirement policy. Certainly, we are making history. Today we are coming together to say that our current patchwork of pension and retirement savings plans has too many holes, that too many people are falling through them, and that this is unacceptable.

It is important to emphasize that all of us are working very hard to close as many of the gaps as possible for today’s workers – we are working to preserve pensions, improve 401(k)s, increase retirement plan coverage, and strengthen Social Security. We want to make current plans and programs as good as they can be. But we are here today to start the process of envisioning something new for future workers.

We are here because a secure retirement has long been part of the American dream. We are here to reclaim that dream. And we are here because America’s world-class workers deserve a world-class retirement system. 

You may have seen an article featuring today’s conference that appeared in yesterday’s USA Today. It is worth reading. Among its observations is the disturbing fact the U.S. has one of the highest old age poverty rates of all major industrialized countries.

But the problem is not only with today’s retirees, millions of whom are barely scraping by. All indications are that unless action is taken, tomorrow’s retirees will be even worse off.   

This isn’t just our view. The USA Today article quotes the president of the Financial Services Roundtable – which represents large financial institutions – as saying that “It’s pretty clear that with the current trend the country’s Baby Boomers and the next generation will not have enough money to retire.” He also said, “I feel we’re watching a slow-motion train wreck.”

Although the Roundtable’s solutions are very different from those we will be discussing today, we are in agreement that it is time to get retirement policy back on track.

To start the process, this morning you will hear from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. You will also hear from Anna Burger and Richard Trumka the heads of the nation’s largest labor federations; you will hear from Barbara Kennelly, a former congresswoman who is the president of a major retiree organization, and from leading experts in the retirement policy field. At lunch you will hear from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who covered these issues for many years at the New York Times. And this afternoon you will have an opportunity learn about and discuss proposals for a new retirement system.  

We had hoped also to hear from Congressman George Miller, however, his scheduler has notified us that he is tied up in leadership meetings and cannot leave the Hill. However, she has said he will speak at our next conference!

As you listen to the speakers and panelists today we ask you to keep an open mind, and for these few hours put aside questions of political feasibility. To get to a new place, we need to be open to new ideas.

We are convinced that working together, we can come up with concepts for a future retirement system to supplement Social Security that will resonate throughout the country. If so, we are optimistic that over time we will be able to muster the kind of groundswell of support that will make implementation of new ideas possible. We also think that, once we come up with a framework for system that seems “right,” we will find a way to pay for it, as other countries have done. 

Finally, on behalf of the conveners, I would like to thank the four co-sponsors of this event for their support: the Retirement Research Foundation, the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. I would also like to thank the Kaiser Family Foundation for the use of this wonderful conference center.

And, most important, I would like to thank the two major funders of Retirement USA, The Atlantic Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation for recognizing not only the importance of retirement security to working Americans, but also the fact that real change is possible.

We are very pleased that Retirement USA’s Rockefeller Foundation program officers, Margot Brandenburg, Brinda Ganguly, and Lily Dorment are here today. Margot has very kindly offered to say a few words on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation.