By Emily Gilbert
Wednesday on Capitol Hill, the House Ways and Means Committee held a wide-ranging hearing about retirement security. The chairman of the Committee, Richard Neal (D-MA), opened by saying he hoped this could be the first of “many conversations” about this topic, and he reiterated his commitment to finding a solution to the multiemployer pension crisis by calling on his colleagues to support his bill, the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act (H.R.397). “The Democrats and Republicans on this Committee,” he said, “need to roll up our sleeves and work together.” Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) echoed Chairman Neal’s call for bipartisanship in his opening statement.
On a panel of witnesses who were largely retirement experts, one of the most emotionally-charged and effective statements came from retiree activist Cynthia McDaniel, the Co-Director of the Missouri-Kansas City Committee to Protect Pensions, who was there to tell her own story and advocate on behalf of “the tens of thousands of others across the country who stand to lose up to 70% of their earned pension benefits unless Congress acts to solve the multiemployer crisis.” Cindy said “We did not set out to be lobbyists. We became them because we had to…the American dream we had lived for and earned, fell apart around us.” In one of the heart-warming highlights of the hearing, Congressman John Lewis, (D-GA), thanked Cindy for having the courage to share her story, and told her that she could go home and tell everyone she had done a good job, the committee had listened to her, and that they will act. “We are here to help people like you,” he said.
Also powerful was the testimony of Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (and chair of PRC’s Board of Directors!) She highlighted the popularity of Social Security among the American population, but also emphasized that its benefits are modest and not meant to be a sole source of retirement income, saying the average Social Security benefit is just $16,000 a year. Even though these benefits are modest, Altman said two out of three retirees depend on their Social Security benefit for most of their retirement income, while the other one out of three depend on it for “virtually all” of their income. While Social Security is important for everyone, Altman stressed that it is especially important for women, people of color, and other disadvantaged populations who may face lower wages and higher rates of unemployment.
Diane Oakley, the Executive Director of the National Institute on Retirement Security testified as well, pointing out that we should celebrate the dramatic reduction in poverty for older Americans, which is attributable largely to Social Security and pensions. However, she noted that the shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans, and the fact that fewer people have access to an employer sponsored retirement plan, has left younger generations struggling to adequately save for retirement.
The other witnesses were Roger Crandall, Chairman, President, & CEO of MassMutual, Luke Huffstutter, a small business owner from Portland, Oregon, Robin Diamonte, Corporate Vice President of Pension Investments at United Technologies Corporation, and Andrew Biggs, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.