RELEASE: Public Pensions Support Race, Class, and Gender Equity in California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 13, 2023
Media Contact: Julie Light,, 415-215-5737

New report finds California public pensions help keep seniors out of poverty while reducing the wealth gap for women, Black, and Latino older families

Berkeley, CA–A new report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center finds that defined benefit pensions—especially public pensions—are critical to providing adequate retirement income for California seniors, especially for women, Black, and Latino retirees, and those without a four-year college degree. The report also finds that pension income is distributed more equitably by race and gender among older adults than other private financial assets. Moreover, the wealth value of lifetime pension income narrows the wealth gap among older families. For example, public pensions are fundamental to Black middle-class economic security, increasing the median wealth of older Black families by 29%.

The report, Public Pensions Support Race Class, and Gender Equity in California is authored by Nari Rhee, PhD., director of the Retirement Security Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center. It serves as a state-level companion to the author’s national study, Closing the Gap: The Role of Public Pensions in Reducing Retirement Inequality, jointly released today with the National Institute on Retirement Security

The report finds that:

  • Pensions reduce retiree poverty and near-poverty across race, sex, and educational divides. The anti-poverty impact of pensions is largest for Black and Latino retirees, as well as for retirees without a four-year college degree.
  • Public sector jobs in California provide broader, more robust, and more racially equitable retirement plan coverage than private sector jobs.
  • Pension income is distributed relatively evenly among recipients by race, while public pension income is distributed more equally by gender, than private pension and 401(k)
  • Pension benefits currently paid to Californians aged 55 and older represent $569 billion in household wealth, boosting middle-class family net worth by 21%, and reducing race-, gender-, and education-based wealth gaps.

“Pensions are critical to building wealth, not just for individual families, but for whole communities,” said report author Rhee. “This is especially true for members of communities that have been systematically disadvantaged in acquiring other forms of wealth. Because pensions help close the wealth gap, they benefit all of society.”

Pensions are the second most important source of income for California seniors, after Social Security. They keep seniors out of poverty, the report finds. In 2016-2021, 91% of retirees in households with pension income lived above 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), compared to 57% of those without pension income. Black retirees with pension income were twice as likely to be above 200% FPL than those without pension income. Latino retirees with pension income were 62% more likely to avoid poverty.

By contrast, retirement accounts, like 401(k)s and IRAs, mostly benefit households at the higher end of the economic scale, further concentrating wealth. Given the decline of corporate pensions and the rise of highly unequal 401(k) benefits in the private sector, public pensions serve as a critical bulwark for middle-class retirement security alongside Social Security. As state and local policymakers in California continue to grapple with an aging society, persistent race and gender disparities in economic outcomes, and rising class inequality, public pensions should be viewed as a powerful means to promote economic security and wealth equity across race, gender, and educational divides.


The UC Berkeley Labor Center conducts research and education on issues related to labor and employment. The Labor Center’s curricula and leadership training serve to educate a diverse new generation of labor leaders.