Public employee pension plans in the United States

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In the United States, public sector pensions are offered by federal, state and local levels of government. They are available to most, but not all, public sector employees. These employer contributions to these plans typically vest after some period of time. These plans may be defined-benefit or defined-contribution pension plans, but the former have been most widely used by public agencies in the U.S. throughout the late twentieth century. Some local governments do not offer defined-benefit pensions but may offer a defined contribution plan. In many states, public employee pension plans are known as Public Employee Retirement Systems (PERS).

Unlike the private sector, in the public sector once an employee is hired their pension benefit terms cannot be changed. Retirement age in the public sector is usually lower than in the private sector. Public pension plan managers in the United States take higher risks investing the funds than ones outside the United States or those in the private sector.[1]


Public pensions got their start with various promises, informal and legislated, made to veterans of the Revolutionary War and, more extensively, the Civil War. They were expanded greatly, and began to be offered by a number of state and local governments during the early Progressive Era in the late nineteenth century.

Federal civilian pensions were offered under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), formed in 1920. CSRS provided retirement, disability and survivor benefits for most civilian employees in the federal government, until the creation of a new federal agency, the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), in 1987.


Retired pay for U.S. Armed Forces retirees is, strictly speaking, not a pension but instead is a form of retainer pay. U.S. military retirees do not vest into a retirement system while they are on active duty; eligibility for non-disability retired pay is solely based upon time in service. Unlike other retirees, U.S. military retirees are subject to involuntary recall to active duty at any time, though the likelihood of such a recall is remote, especially after age 60. In 2008, there were 1,983,467 retired military in the US. There were 856,677 receiving military pensions, the remainder carrying their longevity into federal civil service positions.[3]


Each of the 50 US states has at least one retirement system for its employees. There are 3.68 million full-time and 1.39 million part-time state-level-government civilian employees as of 2002.[4]


Many U.S. cities are allowed to participate in the pension plans of their states; some of the largest have their own pension plans. The total number of local government employees in the United States as of 2002 is 13.2 million. There are 10.15 million full-time and 3.13 million part-time local-government civilian employees as of 2002.[12]

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