RELEASE: How public pensions support race and gender equity

UC Berkeley Labor Center


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | February 23, 2023
Contact: Julie Light, julie.light@berkeley.edu

Public pensions support race and gender equity in Marin County

Third in a series of research briefs finds pensions narrow the equity gap

BERKELEY, CA—A new research brief, How public pensions support race and gender equity, finds that public pensions play an outsized role in the retirement security of every racial group– particularly in Black and Latino communities–in Marin County and the rest of the state. Based on an analysis of county- and state-level Census data, the UC Berkeley Labor Center study finds that public-sector pension coverage is both higher and more racially equitable than private-sector retirement plan coverage.  In addition, the Labor Center brief shows that pension income reduces elder poverty among all groups, especially women and Black and Latino retirees.

Research findings include:

  • Pensions reduce poverty among older Californians across race, gender, and educational attainment. In 2018-2020, California retirees of color with pension income were 65% more likely to have incomes above 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($23,120 for singles and $32,480 for couples) than those without a pension. Retired women were 53% more likely to avoid poverty if they had pension income.
  • Marin County’s public sector employs a workforce that is significantly more diverse than its resident population (39% vs 29% people of color) and plays an outsized role in the retirement readiness of communities of color. Statewide, the public sector employs 23% of Black workers, but accounts for 33% of all Black workers with a job-based retirement plan. About 72% of Black public sector employees participate in a retirement plan—primarily pensions—compared to only 44% of Black private sector employees.
  • Pensions are distributed more equitably than 401(k)s and IRAs among older Californians. Among 2 million older Californians with pension income from any source, pensions are more equally distributed by race and gender than Social Security. Public plans provide the majority of pension income in the state.

“Public pension benefits make up one of the largest sources of wealth for the middle class, and particularly for women and communities of color,” said report author Nari Rhee, Ph.D., director of the Retirement Security Program at the Labor Center. “As Black History Month concludes, it behooves us to understand that public sector jobs and the benefits they provide, especially pensions, form the backbone of Black middle-class economic security.”

For many retirees, having a pension can make a critical difference in their ability to care for their loved ones. Phillip Thomas took early retirement to care for his disabled wife after 21 years as a communications technician for the Marin County Department of Public Works. His pension, together with his wife’s disability benefit, just covers the bills. “We’re not having fancy dinners or taking grand vacations – we’re struggling to get by,” he said. Despite these struggles, the county pension provides Thomas’s family with a critical lifeline. “I don’t know if I would have been able to afford to keep working and pay someone else to care for my wife,” said Thomas.

Pensions also allow seniors to remain a vital part of the Marin community. Retired teacher Fran Rozoff and her husband live in Novato, where they raised four children. Ever passionate about public education, Rozoff currently advocates for increased public school funding and local school efforts to improve education quality and support for the youngest students. “Having an adequate pension allows us to give back to the community,” she said.

The Labor Center’s research brief is the third and final in a three-part series focused on pensions for state and local government workers employed in Marin County. The first brief addresses the role of public pensions in employee compensation. The second brief explains the financial status and cost trajectory of public pension benefits.

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Founded in 1964, the UC Berkeley Labor Center works to address the most critical challenges affecting working families in California and across the nation. The Center provides timely, policy-relevant research on labor and employment issues, and carries out training and education programs for labor leaders and students.