Public awareness of U.S. states’ and cities’ retirement cost burden has increased in recent years; but contrary to popular perception, the problem is not limited to pensions. The long-term bill for retiree health care (other post-employment benefits, or OPEB) has been estimated at over a trillion dollars.
- The persistence of retiree health care in state and local governments is partly a consequence of the influence of government unions: states with unionization rates above that of the national average (28.5 percent) have nearly three times larger per-capita OPEB liabilities.
- Union strength is a problem but not entirely to blame for large OPEB obligations—many southern states with weak labor unions have high OPEB liabilities.
- Governments have too much OPEB debt because of policymakers’ willingness to promise benefits in the future to satisfy interest groups in the present; this problem is combined with the standard, and misguided, public-sector preference for backloading compensation into retirement, as well as an inability or unwillingness to cut costs.