Keep teacher pensions | Commentary

Teachers are one of the backbones of our society — preparing our children for the rest of their lives. These professionals dedicate their lives to ensuring our kids are ready to take on the real world, and they do it while accepting less pay than they would make in the private sector. After a long career, they have the ability to retire with a defined benefit pension. This year, there was a threat to take that away here in South Carolina — replacing pensions with 401(k)s for newly hired teachers. 401(k)s do not provide the retirement security necessary for teachers to retire with dignity.

I have been a teacher for 36 years in Williamsburg County Schools. Every morning teachers across South Carolina wake up and head to their classrooms with one goal in mind: changing the lives of our children for the better. At the end of each school day, I go home knowing that I am giving back to my community and my state. I have never made a ton of money nor am I going to retire with a million-dollar golden parachute, but I can count on a dignified retirement through my pension. Retired teachers earn an average annual pension of $21,013 — a modest amount that they can count on to help support themselves and their families in retirement.

During the legislative session this year, Republicans and Democrats brokered a bipartisan deal that caps employee pension contributions at 9 percent until 2023. This responsible legislation will keep our pensions well-funded and reliable for years to come. Unfortunately, some extremists in Columbia are fighting to do away with pensions entirely. Switching newly hired teachers to 401(k) plans would be a mistake for teachers and taxpayers.

Those 401(k) plans do not provide an adequate retirement for several reasons. First, 401(k)s have much higher fees — putting your hard-earned money into the pockets of Wall Street. Second, 401(k) plans are subject to the whims of the market and if there’s a recession like 2008, many hard-working folks will lose much of their savings. Third, due to those fees and lack of investment know-how, many families aren’t able to save enough for their retirement. The average 401(k) account balance for South Carolina workers is only $20,630 — a tiny fraction of what is needed in retirement.

On the other hand, there are pensions — a safe and reliable retirement plan for many reasons. Pensions are pooled investments that are professionally managed, and earn higher returns than 401(k)s, with even lower fees. Unlike 401(k)s, pensions provide employees with a defined, monthly benefit for life — a sum they can depend on. Pensions are also a crucial tool for recruiting and retaining the best educators – something that we have a problem doing in South Carolina.

Without a pension being offered to newly hired teachers, we could see more of our educators heading to neighboring Georgia. In Georgia, the average annual pension payment is $27,583 compared to $21,013 in South Carolina. Compare that to an average teacher salary of $52,880 in Georgia and $48,375 in South Carolina. We should be doing more to bolster our pension system, not looking to tear it down.

As our kids head back to school this month, I encourage everyone to thank teachers for their dedication and hard work. Come next legislative session, I also encourage South Carolina lawmakers to leave our pension system alone and to not fall for the 401(k) trick. Don’t let outside influencers tell you 401(k)s are better than our pension, because they’re not.

Ronnie Ray James is a high school teacher in Greeleyville in Williamsburg County.

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