Public pensions in Pennsylvania

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Public pensions in
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General information (2013)
Total contributions:
Employee contributions:
Government contributions:
Total payments:
Total cash and investment holdings:
Number of state and local pension systems:
1580 (3 state systems, 1,577 local systems)
Active membership:
Inactive membership:
Pension health (2012)
Actuarial accrued liability (AAL):
Unfunded actuarial accrued liability (UAAL):
Funded ratio:
UAAL per capita:
Public pensions
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Public pensionsState public pension plansPennsylvania state budget and finances
Note: This page utilizes information from a variety of sources. As such, the currency of the information varies somewhat. The information presented on this page reflects the most recent data available as of March 2015.
Pennsylvania public pensions are the state mechanism by which state and many local government employees in Pennsylvania receive retirement benefits.

According to the United States Census Bureau, there were 1,580 public pension systems in Pennsylvania as of 2013. Three of these are state-level programs, while the remaining 1,577 are administered at the local level. As of 2013, membership in Pennsylvania's various pension systems totaled 697,230. Of these, 540,795 were active members.[1]

According to reports based on the most recent available data, most states' pension plans continued to be underfunded below the 80 percent considered necessary for a healthy fund. Decreased funding and increasing liabilities since the 2008 recession continued to put pressure on local and state budgets, in some cases leading to bankruptcy. Higher pension costs can have the following consequences:[2]

  • higher taxes
  • less intergovernmental aid for services
  • lower credit ratings
  • higher interest rates on state borrowing
Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, the funded ratio of Pennsylvania's state-administered pension plans decreased from 87.2 percent to 63.9 percent. The state paid only 43 percent of its annual required contribution, and as of fiscal year 2012, the pension system's unfunded accrued liability totaled $47.3 billion. This amounted to $3,749 in unfunded liabilities per capita.[2][3]


Pension systems vary greatly across the states in their organization, management and accounting principles, and are extremely complicated and difficult to compare. The basic data on this page comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, as reported by the states and pension funds themselves for fiscal year 2013. Also included are comparative data from three different reports, which looked at the states' Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs). The Pew Center report and Morningstar had very similar data: both found that pension funds in the U.S. altogether were roughly 72 percent funded in 2012. The State Budget Solutions report, using a lower rate of return to calculate assets in the future, estimated that total unfunded liabilities in the United States rose from 4.1 trillion to 4.7 trillion between 2013 and 2014, and in aggregate pensions are only 36 percent funded. All three studies showed that the majority of state pension systems continue to be seriously underfunded. See the sections below for figures comparing Pennsylvania to its neighbors in all three reports.

Key terms

Here are some key terms used in discussing pension funds and pension health.

  1. Actuarial accrued liability (AAL): The present value of all benefits owed to current and future retirees, based on the number of retirees and the promises made regarding benefits.
  2. Actuarial value of assets (AVA): The value of all the assets in the plan, which include investment gains and losses, depending on how the assets are valued.
  3. Unfunded actuarial accrued liability (UAAL): The difference between the total value of assets and accrued liability; the difference between what is owed to all beneficiaries enrolled in the plan and what funds are available to pay out to both current and future beneficiaries.
  4. Annual required contribution (ARC): An annual expense employers pay towards a pension plan made up of two parts: the "normal cost," or the amount paid for benefits earned in that year, and an additional cost that attempts to pay for a portion of the unfunded liabilities from previous years.[2]
  5. Funded ratio: A percentage expressing how fully a pension plan is funded, determined by dividing net assets by accrued liabilities. For example, if a plan has assets of $80 million, but liabilities of $100 million, it is 80 percent funded.
  6. Rate of return: The ratio of money earned or lost on an investment expressed as a percentage of the investment. For example, a $5.00 profit on a $100 investment is a 5 percent rate of return.
  7. Active member: A member of a pension plan either receiving benefits or making contributions.
  8. Inactive member: A member of a pension plan no longer contributing and not yet receiving benefits from that plan.

General information

See also: Pension data, U.S. Census

According to the U.S. Census, Pennsylvania has three state pension plans:

  1. Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement Fund
  2. Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System
  3. Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System[4]

In addition to the aforementioned state-level pension systems, there were 1,577 locally administered pension systems in Pennsylvania. This gives Pennsylvania the largest number of pension systems in the country.[1]

The table below provides general pension system information for Pennsylvania and surrounding states.

General pension system information, 2013
State Systems Total members Active members Inactive members
State Local Members Percent of total Members Percent of total
Pennsylvania 3 1,577 697,230 540,795 77.56% 156,435 22.44%
Delaware 1 7 48,136 44,632 92.72% 3,504 7.28%
Maryland 2 17 298,706 243,926 81.66% 54,780 18.34%
New Jersey 7 3 557,704 418,062 74.96% 139,642 25.04%
New York 2 6 1,384,297 1,179,849 85.23% 204,448 14.77%
Source: United States Census Bureau


See also: Pension contribution data, U.S. Census

Pension contributions are the funds paid into pension systems. These contributions come from the employer (in the case of public pensions, the government) and employees. Investment earnings are the main source of increases in the fund and are listed separately to the right. In fiscal year 2013, the most recent year for which information is available, total contributions of $5.2 billion were made to Pennsylvania's state and local pension systems. Of this amount, $1.8 billion came from employees. The remainder came from state and local governments. The table below provides information about pension contributions in Pennsylvania and surrounding states in fiscal year 2013.[1]

Pension contributions, fiscal year 2013 (dollars in thousands)
State Total contributions from employees and employers Employee contributions Government contributions Earnings on investments
Contributions Percentage of total Contributions Percentage of total
Pennsylvania $5,237,533 $1,786,446 34.11% $3,451,087 65.89% $10,004,140
Delaware $370,881 $70,874 19.11% $300,007 80.89% $916,759
Maryland $3,343,878 $831,633 24.87% $2,512,245 75.13% $5,634,022
New Jersey $4,897,733 $1,950,096 39.82% $2,947,637 60.18% $7,158,430
New York $18,058,509 $1,368,115 7.58% $16,690,394 92.42% $42,810,586
Source: United States Census Bureau


See also: Pension contribution data, U.S. Census

Payments are the amounts paid to pension recipients by their pension plans. Pension payments include benefits and withdrawals. Benefits are the regular payments made by a pension plan to the plan's recipients. Pension beneficiaries may also withdraw funds before they are due to receive regular benefits.

In fiscal year 2013, Pennsylvania's state and local pension systems made payments totaling $11.8 billion. The table below provides pension payment information for Pennsylvania and surrounding states in fiscal year 2013. The columns labeled "Benefits," "Withdrawals" and "Other" indicate subsets of total payments. All dollar amounts displayed are multiplied by 1,000 ($240,000 is equal to $240,000,000).

Pension payments, fiscal year 2013 (dollars in thousands)
State Total payments Benefits Withdrawals Other
Pennsylvania $11,825,014 $10,808,886 $105,793 $910,353
Delaware $611,487 $574,107 $7,362 $30,018
Maryland $4,526,892 $4,080,980 $66,476 $379,436
New Jersey $9,076,177 $8,847,363 $172,479 $56,335
New York $28,692,433 $27,155,776 $93,614 $1,443,043
Source: United States Census Bureau

Cash and investment holdings

See also: Pension data, U.S. Census

Investments are a crucial part of the pension process. The goal is that, by investing pension contributions, the pensioner will receive more money when he retires than he and his employer were able to contribute. These investments can come in the form of cash investments, short-term investments, securities or other investments. Cash investments are usually low-risk, short-term investments that have a lower rate of return than other types of investments. Short-term investments are riskier than cash investments, but have the potential for greater returns. Securities can refer to stocks or bonds and represent some form of financial value. As the values of these securities change, they can be traded to make a profit. While there are other applications of securities investments, this represents one of the most common practices.[5][6][7]

As of fiscal year 2013, Pennsylvania's state and local pension systems held $95.9 billion in total cash and investment holdings. The table below summarizes pension system cash and investment holdings for Pennsylvania and surrounding states. The columns labeled "Total cash and short-term investments," "Total securities" and "Total other investments" indicate subsets of the grand total. All dollar amounts displayed are multiplied by 1,000 ($240,000 is equal to $240,000,000).[1]

Total cash and investment holdings, fiscal year 2013 (dollars in thousands)
State Grand total Total cash and short-term investments Total securities Total other investments
Pennsylvania $95,888,331 $4,802,332 $67,261,866 $23,824,133
Delaware $8,642,790 $449,791 $6,661,408 $1,531,591
Maryland $54,432,962 $2,904,012 $37,627,743 $13,901,207
New Jersey $74,449,190 $13,512 $54,475,303 $19,960,375
New York $382,206,781 $13,165,690 $338,216,433 $30,824,658
Source: United States Census Bureau

Pension health

Pension health is a term used to describe the overall state of pension systems. It can be difficult to gauge pension health in each state, but many studies use calculations to determine the average liabilities, unfunded liabilities, funded ratio and other data. Most experts believe that pension systems need to be funded at least 80 percent to be considered helathy. This information is then used to provide a snapshot of the state's overall pension health. This section contains three separate studies that collected similar information to gauge pension health in all 50 states.

Pew research

See also: Pew Charitable Trusts pensions study, 2014

According to a 2014 report by the Pew Charitable Trust, “many states are seeing their pension debt continue to increase, despite reform efforts, because of missed contributions and the continued impact of investment losses.” The funding gap between what state pension systems have promised in benefits (liabilities) and current funding (assets) increased by $158 billion from 2010 to 2012 (14 percent), leaving state-run retirement systems with $915 billion in unfunded liabilities. Only 15 states made at least 95 percent of the required contributions (ARCs) for their pensions between 2010 and 2012; the aggregate shortfall in funding for all state plans was $21 billion.[8] Data on these state pensions come from the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) that each state’s pension plans prepared for fiscal year 2012 and include their own actuarial valuations based on “the expected rate of return on investments and estimates of employee life spans, retirement ages, salary growth, retention rates, and other demographic characteristics.” [9]

Pew Charitable Trusts Pension Report, 2010-2012 (dollars in millions)
State 2012 Funded ratio Percent of ARC paid
Liability Unfunded ARC 2010 2011 2012 2010 2011 2012
Pennsylvania $130,817 $47,286 $3,674 75% 68% 64% 29% 31% 43%
Delaware $8,900 $1,037 $196 92% 91% 88% 97% 98% 99%
Maryland $58,305 $20,868 $2,054 64% 65% 64% 87% 73% 70%
New Jersey $133,148 $47,209 $5,546 71% 68% 65% 32% 32% 39%
New York $169,266 $21,457 $4,585 94% 90% 87% 100% 100% 100%
Totals in the U.S. $3,298,643 $914,653 $87,213 75% 74% 72% 78% 77% 77%
Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts, "The Fiscal Health of State Pension Plans: Funding Gap Continues to Grow"

Morningstar report

See also: Pension data, 2013 Morningstar report

In 2013, independent investment research firm Morningstar released "The State of State Pension Plans 2013," a report detailing various metrics of pension system health in all 50 states. They found a $1.2 trillion gap in 2012 for the largest 100 U.S. public pension plans (according to the actuarial firm Milliman). Based on two key drivers in Morningstar’s analysis—the funded ratio and the unfunded actuarial accrued liability (UAAL) per capita—the fiscal solvency and management of these plans varied greatly. Overall they found that "more than half of all states fall below Morningstar’s fiscally sound threshold of a 70% funded ratio" and all state plans combined were "72.6% funded with a UAAL per capita of roughly $2,600.”[2]

According to Morningstar's research, Pennsylvania's state pension system's pension plans were funded at a rate of 63.9 percent in fiscal year 2012. The table below provides state pension system health metrics for Pennsylvania and surrounding states in fiscal year 2012. Figures in the columns labeled "Assets," "AAL" and "UAAL" are rendered in thousands of dollars (for example, $2,400,000 translates to $2,400,000,000). Figures in the remaining columns have not been abbreviated. To view the full report click here.

Pension health metrics, fiscal year 2012 (dollars in thousands)
State Assets Liabilities (AAL) Unfunded liabilities (UAAL) Funded ratio Unfunded liabilities
per capita
Pennsylvania $83,530,310 $130,816,224 $47,285,914 63.9% $3,749
Delaware $7,644,014 $8,657,810 $1,013,796 88.3% $1,150
Maryland $37,248,401 $57,869,145 $20,620,744 64.4% $3,620
New Jersey $86,219,406 $131,915,760 $45,696,354 65.4% $5,239
New York $148,599,000 $164,256,000 $15,657,000 90.5% $814
Totals in the U.S. $2,157,578,916 $2,979,267,860 $821,688,945 72.40% N/A
Source: Morningstar, "The State of State Pension Plans 2013: A Deep Dive Into Shortfalls and Surpluses," accessed April 27, 2015

State Budget Solutions report

See also: Pension data, State Budget Solutions report

State Budget Solutions is "a non-partisan, non-profit, national public policy organization with the mission to change the way state and local governments do business." [10] In November 2014 the organization released a research report which used a fair market valuation based on a discount rate of 2.743 percent to determine the unfunded liabilities of public pension plans. They concluded that "state public pension plans are underfunded by $4.7 trillion, up from $4.1 trillion in 2013. Overall, the combined plans' funded status has dipped three percentage points to 36 percent. Split among all Americans, the unfunded liability is over $15,000 per person."[11] According to the State Budget Solutions report, Pennsylvania 's pension plans were funded at a rate of 32 percent. This was lower than the Morningstar report's data, and well below the Pew Center's recommended level of 80 percent.

To read the full report click here.

Pension health metrics from the State Budget Solutions report, fiscal year 2013 (dollars in thousands)
State Assets Market Liability* Funding Ratio Unfunded Liability Unfunded Liability Per Capita Unfunded Liability as Percentage of 2013 Gross State Product
Pennsylvania $85,215,151 $267,049,559 32% $181,834,408 $14,235 28%
Delaware $8,172,154 $18,287,400 45% $10,115,246 $10,924 16%
Maryland $39,561,707 $122,934,555 32% $83,372,848 $14,062 24%
New Jersey $86,122,541 $286,272,593 30% $200,150,052 $22,491 37%
New York $238,027,500 $545,959,988 44% $307,932,488 $15,670 23%
Totals in the U.S. $2,679,831,466 $7,416,319,293 36% $4,736,487,827 $15,052 29%
Source: State Budget Solutions 2014 Unfunded Pension Liabilities Report, accessed April 3, 2015

Other factors

Rate of return

According to a 2012 analysis by the Pew Center for the States, most state pension plans assume an 8 percent rate of return on investments.[12] Critics assert that this assumption is unrealistic, citing changing market conditions and significantly lower investment returns across the board over the past several years.[13]

Using a lower rate of return to predict investment earnings accurately, however, increases the current plan liabilities. This would lower the percent funded ratio and require increased employer contributions (ARCs). This is because future plan liabilities are discounted based on the rate of return, so smaller expected investment returns result in larger actuarially accrued liabilities.[14] For example, on September 21, 2012, the Illinois Teachers Retirement System voted to lower its rate of return from 8.5 percent to 8.0 percent. This change increased the state's fiscal year 2014 ARC from $3.07 billion to $3.36 billion.[15] Similarly, when California's CalPERS reduced its projected annual rate of return from 7.75 percent to 7.5 percent in March 2012, it cost the state an additional $303 million for fiscal year 2013.[16]

Financial crisis

The 2008 financial crisis had a devastating effect on pension plans nationwide because of slower economic growth and increased market volatility. Some market strategists found the 8 percent assumption to be overly ambitious and "dangerously optimistic."[17] Advocates for a lower assumed rate of return argued that the standard 8 percent assumptions could cause pension fund managers to engage in more risky investments and imprudent stewardship of public funds. Further, if pension plans were using more conservative assumptions, such as the 3 or 4 percent assumed rate of return used in the private sector, and the plans grew more quickly than expected because of a higher rate of return, the fund would have a surplus and smaller future required contributions (ARCs), which would be preferable to using optimistic assumptions and potentially being caught with larger-than-expected deficits.[18][19][20][21][22]

Traditional public pension plan advocates argue that the dip in recent years does not prove there is a long-term downward trend in investment returns. According to Chris Hoene, executive director at the California Budget Project, "The problem with [the market rate] argument is there isn’t significant evidence other than the short term blip during the economic crisis that there’s been that shift. It’s a speculative argument coming out of a very deep recession."[17]

The National Association of State Retirement Administrators researched the median annualized rate of return for public pensions for the 1-, 3-, 5-, 10-, 20- and 25-year periods ending in 2013 and found it was 7.9 percent over the 20-year period, and exceeded 8 percent for the 1-, 3- and 25-year periods. It is important to note that the NASRA data reported the median returns, which means that median annualized returns of investment portfolios for half of the examined public pension funds failed to meet an 8 percent assumed rate of return.[23]

Studies and reports

Pension fund management fees

See also: Public pension fund management fees

In July 2013, the Maryland Public Policy Institute (MPPI) and the Maryland Tax Education Foundation released a report detailing the fees paid for the management of state pension systems. According to MPPI, the 10 state pension funds that paid the most in management fees relative to net assets experienced lower returns over a five-year period than the 10 state pension funds that paid the least in management fees. For example, in fiscal year 2012, South Carolina's pension system paid approximately $296.1 million in total management fees (1.31 percent of total net assets at the beginning of the fiscal year) and its five-year rate of return was 1.46 percent. By contrast, Alabama's pension system paid roughly $13.3 million in management fees (0.05 percent of total net assets) and its five-year rate of return was 7.53 percent.[24]

The table below presents the information collected by MPPI for Pennsylvania and surrounding states. For each state's pension system, total net assets are listed (both for the beginning and end of the fiscal year in question), as well as the total amount paid in management fees. In addition, the rates of return for the pension systems are presented. Pennsylvania represented the median in total net assets at both the beginning and end of the fiscal year when compared to surrounding states.

Public pension fund management fees, 2011-2012
State Fiscal year Total net assets at the beginning of the year Total net assets at the end of the year Total management fees Management fees as % of total net assets Five-year rate of return
Pennsylvania 2012; 2011 $77,319,283,000 $73,140,758,000 $682,878,000 0.88% 1.00%
Delaware 2012 $7,648,780,000 $7,536,367,000 $47,318,000 0.62% 3.90%
Maryland 2012 $37,592,752,000 $37,178,726,000 $241,489,000 0.64% 0.78%
New Jersey 2012 $81,067,610,282 $77,883,990,040 $224,200,000 0.28% 2.46%
New York 2012 $315,448,861,000 $316,880,795,000 $874,147,529 0.28% 2.91%
1"Three states— Hawaii, Nevada and Rhode Island—were excluded because they hadn’t published CAFRs for fiscal years ending December 31, 2011 or later. West Virginia was excluded because its June 30, 2012 CAFR lacked sufficient disclosure."[24]
Source: Maryland Public Policy Institute, "Wall Street Fees, Investment Returns, Maryland 49 Other State Pension Funds," July 1, 2013

Other post-employment benefits

See also: Other post-employment benefits, data

In addition to standard pension payments, some plans may offer pensioners additional benefits. These benefits, sometimes referred to as "other post-employment benefits," or "OPEBs," consist of health insurance, life insurance or other benefits that the pensioner may have received while employed. The cost of these benefits can prove complicated for actuaries to calculate because of the changes in fields like medicine. This, coupled with the normal challenges in calculating and meeting pension requirements, can result in severe shortages in funding for pension plans.

Unfunded liabilities totaled nearly $500 billion throughout the country for OPEBs. Pennsylvania was reported to have about $13.2 billion in unfunded liabilities for OPEBs. This was equal to about 2.64 percent of the country's total unfunded liabilities for these other services.

The chart below displays the unfunded liabilities for Pennsylvania and its surrounding states. All dollar amounts are displayed in millions of dollars. For instance, $300 translates to $300,000,000.

Unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities for other post-employment benefits, fiscal year 2013 (dollars in millions)
State Unfunded liabilities Percent of total
Pennsylvania $13,151 2.64%
Delaware $5,766 1.16%
Maryland $8,792 1.77%
New Jersey $63,881 12.84%
New York $67,714 13.61%
U.S. Total $497,693 100%
Source: National Association of State Retirement Administrators, "Retiree Health Care Benefits for State and Local Employees in 2014," accessed April 30, 2015. Note: Although this article was dated for 2014, all figures were reported to have come from fiscal year 2013 reports.


See also: Public pension disclosure and Governmental Accounting Standards Board
  • SERS publishes actuarial and investment information on its website.[25]
  • Names of recipients and amounts disbursed are not published.
  • The SERS strategic investment plan, which outlines holdings in real estate and public and private holdings, is posted.[26]

Recent news

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See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 United States Census Bureau, "State- and Locally-Administered Defined Benefit Pension Systems - All Data by State and Level of Government: 2013," accessed March 23, 2015
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Morningstar, "The State of State Pension Plans 2013: A Deep Dive Into Shortfalls and Surpluses," accessed April 27, 2015
  3. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “The Fiscal Health of State Pension Plans: Funding Gap Continues to Grow,” March 2014.
  4. U.S. Census, "2013 Survey of Public Pensions: State Data," accessed April 16, 2015. Note: To access this data, navigate to the bottom of the page and click "Unit ID file."
  5. Investopedia, "Cash investment definition," accessed April 6, 2015
  6. Investopedia, "Short-term investments definition," accessed April 6, 2015
  7. Investopedia, "Securities," accessed April 6, 2015
  8. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “The Fiscal Health of State Pension Plans: Funding Gap Continues to Grow,” March 2014.]
  9. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “The Fiscal Health of State Pension Plans Funding Gap Continues to Grow,” April 8, 2014
  10. State Budget Solutions, "About SBS," accessed October 31, 2013
  11. State Budget Solutions, "Promises Made, Promises Broken 2014: Unfunded Liabilities Hit $4.7 Trillion," by Joe Luppino-Esposito, November 12, 2014
  12. The Widening Gap Update, "Pew Center on the States," accessed October 17, 2013
  13. The New York Times, "Public Pensions Faulted for Bets on Rosy Returns," accessed May 27, 2012
  14. Benefits Magazine, "Public Pension Funding 101: Key Terms and Concepts," accessed October 23, 2013
  15. Crain's Chicago Business, "State teachers pension board lowers expected rate of return," accessed September 21, 2013
  16. Huffington Post, "California Pension Funds Expect Lower Investment Return," accessed March 14, 2012
  17. 17.0 17.1 Governing, "Expert: Governments Are Masking Their Pension Liabilities," accessed October 25, 2013
  18. The Washington Post, "Kansas’s pension funding gap just grew by $1 billion," accessed September 6, 2013
  19. Topeka Capital-Journal, "KPERS' unfunded liability rises to $10.2B," accessed September 4, 2013
  20. Wall Street Journal, "Pensions Wrestle With Return Rates," accessed October 10, 2011
  21. The Courant, "Promising Too Much On Public Pensions," accessed August 10, 2012
  22. Business Wire, "NCPERS 2013 Survey: Public Pension Plans Report Increasing Confidence, Lower Costs, Growing Returns," accessed October 22, 2013
  23. National Association of State Retirement Administrators, "Issue Brief: Public Pension Plan Investment Return Assumptions," accessed October 23, 2013
  24. 24.0 24.1 Maryland Public Policy Institute, "Wall Street Fees, Investment Returns, Maryland 49 Other State Pension Funds," July 1, 2013
  25. State Employees' Retirement System, "Home page," accessed November 19, 2013
  26. State Employees' Retirement System, "Investments," accessed November 19, 2013