Across the nation, public pensions are in crisis, and have been so for a long time. Funding pension costs is a political issue in cities, counties, and states from California, to Illinois, to Rhode Island. The rising expense of public employee pensions has become a political hot button justifying cuts to education and other necessary government investments, causing acrimonious debate, court cases, protest marches, and more. All the recent incidents of municipal bankruptcies have been blamed, at least in part, on pension obligations. Most famously, this was the case in Detroit, Michigan, but has also been true in the cities of Stockton and Vallejo in California, Prichard, Alabama, and Central Falls, Rhode Island.
The city of Chicago is currently feeling some of the warning tremors. According to its own estimates, the city’s various pension funds have only half the funds in hand needed to pay its pensions. This leaves a $28.6 billion difference between the assets and the present value of the debt to all the current and future retirees in the system. This difference, known as the “unfunded liability,” was cited as the primary reason that Moody’s, the bond-rating firm, downgraded Chicago’s bond rating to “junk” status in May of 2015
The other common measure of a pension system’s health is the ratio between the assets and the future liabilities, known as the “funding ratio.” Chicago’s funding ratio hovers around 50 percent, but the condition of the pension funds managed by the state of Illinois is even worse, showing a 39 percent funding ratio, with $111 billion worth of unfunded liability