Let me start with full disclosure. I’m a young person and a state employee. I use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. And I welcome being engaged in any discussion of “dense fiscal issues” like pension liabilities.

Too bad my demographic wasn’t fully represented during the “Make Government Work” forum that was held at the fancy Hartford Club and covered by Hugh McQuaid for CTNewsJunkie. Then again, how could I quarrel with a panel comprised of middle-aged and older men from organizations like Connecticut Business and Industry Association telling young folks like me how to take back their democracy by grabbing hold of this thorny pension problem?

How could I not have faith in a panel moderated by David Walker, founder and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative? After all, Walker is a loyal minion of Pete Peterson, whose “Fix the Debt” crowd believes that middle class “entitlements” must be cut especially without telling us why (because billionaire corporate executives should continue to enjoy their over-the-top compensation while collecting their pensions).

Okay, I get it. Real workers and unions were not welcome. But with such imbalanced representation, the panel’s message was doomed to a narrow focus and a flawed narrative.

For instance, nobody talked about the fact that expenditures from state and municipal pension benefits supported more than 29,000 jobs and $4 billion in total economic output in Connecticut, according to the respected National Institute on Retirement Security.

So you see, the problem isn’t that state employees have pensions. The problem is that too few private sector workers have them (with the exception of the big business folks who want to gut our pensions before cashing out on theirs). Steep declines in employer-sponsored plans and employee participation have put us on the brink of a retirement crisis.

Earlier this year, the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) issued a report that confirmed the scope of the problem. As of 2010, roughly half of Connecticut workers — about three-quarters of a million residents — were not participating in an employer-provided retirement plan (for most of the non-participants, the “plan” is a savings account with no employer support). If this trend continues, the number of seniors living in poverty will skyrocket as workers lack sufficient assets to afford even basic expenses when they retire.

The New School’s research also finds that the average person in Connecticut who is over the age of 65 and in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution lives on $7,368 per year, including Social Security and public assistance programs. People in the 20th to 40th percentile of the income distribution live on $14,673 per year.

I shudder to think of the social and economic consequences of such mass downward mobility of our seniors. But there are ways to fix our broken retirement system.

Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, sponsored a bill, SB 54, during the 2013 legislation that would allow workers who do not have access to a retirement plan through their employer to deposit a percentage of their annual salary into a retirement savings trust fund. The plan would be portable, so workers could take their investment with them from job to job.

And unlike other portable plans this has low administrative costs, because it’s a not-for-profit structure administered through the state treasurer. Whatever administrative costs are associated with the plan are charged to the participants, not taxpayers.

Vehicles like SB 54 make sense for an economy ravaged by gaping income inequality and corporate greed. My union represents more than 32,000 public service workers, the vast majority of whom are fortunate enough to have a real, defined benefit — pensions.

That’s because we’re there to fight for them at the bargaining table, to ensure that after a long career, workers are able to live in dignity, enjoy their families, deal with unexpected expenses — and help Main Street flourish because that’s where they spend their retirement income.
The state legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should make the enactment of SB 54 a top legislative priority in 2014. Every future retiree should have the opportunity to retire with adequate income and dignity. It’s what we young people call the American way.

Uri Allen is a state employee and union steward for AFSCME Local 269.