Legal or Not, States Forge Ahead With 401(k)-for-Everyone Plans

Congress jeopardized the future of state plans to help private employees save for retirement. States don't seem to care.
BY  AUGUST 2017
Fifty-seven million American workers don't have access to a retirement plan through their jobs. (David Kidd)

Matt Birong spent years cooking in upscale restaurants in Boston and New York City. In an industry notorious for low wages and zero benefits, he did something very unusual: He opened a retirement savings account for himself. Birong admits that if his parents hadn’t insisted he do so, he likely would have skipped the process. Even then, the notion of setting up an investment plan on his own would have been overwhelming if he didn’t have a trusted friend in the financial services industry to walk him through it.

Now, as owner and head chef of 3 Squares Café south of Burlington, Vt., Birong wishes he could do the same thing for his employees. He already offers other unusual perks for the industry to attract quality and loyal workers, such as paid time off after one year of service. But setting up a retirement savings program for his roughly 15 employees? “I’ve got my head under a sink making sure the water’s not leaking on the tenants downstairs,” he says. “I just don’t have the time; it’s not that I don’t want to.”

Birong’s situation is similar to that of many small-business owners across the country and is a big reason why half of private-sector workers don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Of those 57 million people, only a small percentage have saved on their own and those savings are generally paltry. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.

Some states want to change that. This July, Oregon became the first to offer a retirement plan to full- and part-time private-sector workers who don’t have access to one through their employer. Eight other states -- California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington -- are implementing similar plans that should reach full rollout within the next five years. In general, the programs will run independently from the state and will be paid for through retirement account fees. When the nine state plans are up and running, they will serve roughly one-quarter of private-sector workers across the country. In California alone, the plans will cover nearly 7 million people.

Nation's Least-Funded Schools Get What They Pay For

Education funding has yet to bounce back from the recession in many states. But nowhere is the situation more dire than in Oklahoma.
BY  JUNE 2017
school hallway and lockers
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In his 17 years as a school official in Oklahoma, Robert Romines has dealt with more than his share of painful situations. In 2013, as superintendent in the town of Moore, he had to shepherd his system through the aftermath of a tornado that caused $2 billion in total damage, destroying entire neighborhoods and taking down two elementary schools. Today, he is up against a subtler but deeply corrosive attack on his schools: death by a thousand spending cuts.

No state has suffered more than Oklahoma when it comes to education funding over the past decade. As it has struggled to balance its budget in the face of declining oil revenue, spending on schools has declined further than anywhere else. Oklahoma now spends $1 billion less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago. One in five of its school districts has opted for a four-day school week; the base minimum salary for educators hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade; and emergency credentials are being awarded at a record pace to help fill teacher vacancies. Arts programs are going away. Some schools are consolidating their sports programs with other schools to save money. Funding was cut in this year’s education budget for the statewide science fair, in which students compete for awards and scholarships.

In Moore, Romines has tried to hold off as long as possible from making budget cuts that directly impact students. But in the last few years, he has had no choice.

The City Managers on a Constant Quest for New Places to Fix

BY  MAY 2017

 

In the early 2000s, Mark Scott had been working for the city of Beverly Hills for 20 years -- 14 of them as city manager. Thanks to the opulence of the town, it was the kind of place where a budding manager could learn the business minus the typical “city” problems. But eventually the absence of serious issues started to get to Scott. During his tenure, he had watched neighboring Los Angeles endure dramatic civil and social unrest. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, luxury merchants and developers were bending over backward to do business. In 2003, the town’s Rodeo Drive Committee announced that the glassware company Baccarat was displaying $1 million worth of crystal chandeliers along the famous road’s median. It all triggered something in Scott, and he decided he needed a change. Or, really, a challenge.

He couldn’t have picked a more opposite place for his next chapter. Scott landed in Spartanburg, S.C., a former mill town divided almost evenly between white and black residents. About one-quarter of the town lived in poverty.

John Arnold: The Most Hated Man in Pensionland

The billionaire philanthropist has vowed to secure retirement for public employees. So why do so many public employees despise him?
BY  APRIL 2017
(Photos by Brent Humphreys)

John Arnold wasn’t a pension guy.

The billionaire financier, who made a fortune in the stock market before retiring at 38, hadn’t ever really been interested in public retirement plans. But in early 2009, just months into the global financial crisis, Arnold began seeing a flurry of news articles about public pension funds collectively losing billions in the stock market crash. Assets had plummeted, causing unfunded liabilities to shoot up. Cash-strapped governments couldn’t afford to fix the shortfall, and the longer they delayed putting more money in their pensions, the worse the problem would get. In short, it was a policy nightmare.

Arnold became intrigued. “The fact that you could go in one year from having a system that was well-funded to having a major gap -- that affected me,” he says. He started digging and found a book called Plunder: How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, by conservative writer Steven Greenhut. As the title suggests, the book is an anti-union take on public pensions that details the misdeeds of the system’s bad actors -- public employees who game the system and wind up with pensions that are equal to or better than what their working salaries had been. Reading that book, says the now-43-year-old Arnold, “just made me mad.”

The Myth vs. the Truth About Regulating Payday Lenders

When state laws drive so-called "debt traps" to shut down, the industry moves its business online. Do their low-income customers follow?
BY  MARCH 2017

In 2010, Montana voters overwhelmingly approved a 36 percent rate cap on payday loans. The industry -- the folks who run the storefronts where borrowers are charged high interest rates on small loans -- predicted a doomsday of shuttered stores and lost jobs. A little over a year later, the 100 or so payday stores in towns scattered across the state were indeed gone, as were the jobs. But the story doesn’t end there.

The immediate fallout from the cap on payday loans had a disheartening twist. While brick-and-mortar payday lenders, most of whom had been charging interest upward of 300 percent on their loans, were rendered obsolete, online payday lenders, some of whom were charging rates in excess of 600 percent, saw a big uptick in business. Eventually, complaints began to flood the Attorney General’s office. Where there was one complaint against payday lenders the year before Montana put its cap in place in 2011, by 2013 there were 101. All of these new complaints were against online lenders and many of them could be attributed to borrowers who had taken out multiple loans.

That is precisely what the payday loan industry had warned Montana officials about. The interest rates they charge are high, the lenders say, because small-dollar, short-term loans -- loans of $100 or $200 -- aren’t profitable otherwise. When these loans are capped or other limits are imposed, store-based lenders shut down and unscrupulous online lenders swoop in.

Fighting Sex Trafficking Is Harder Than It Seems

More than half the states have passed laws to protect victims, but the laws aren’t always enforced and often produce new challenges.
BY  JANUARY 2017

When a young teen named Anjelique ran away from her home near San Francisco last summer, her trauma didn’t end when police eventually found her. Instead, while her distraught mother and grandmother posted “missing child” fliers all over the East Bay area, police took Anjelique to an Alameda County social services assessment center in Hayward. Before police take troubled youths home, they often bring them there to receive counseling and services.

But 12-year-old Anjelique only stayed one night. That’s because sex traffickers were using the assessment center as a recruitment base. Anjelique befriended another teenage girl in the center, who convinced her to leave. Together, they walked just a few minutes up the seedy commercial strip in Hayward to a budget motel. Once there, Anjelique was put to work.

As a means of controlling her, her mother said, Anjelique’s traffickers got her hooked on heroin. As part of an investigation into her story, a local news crew visited the motel where Anjelique unwittingly entered the sex trafficking trade. Filmed one night this past summer, the news video shows young women arriving early in the evening while others linger in the doorways of rooms or on the balcony outside. Throughout the night, men come in and out of the rooms; other men whisk the girls away in cars, bringing them back a few hours later.

Anjelique eventually escaped, and at the time of the news story, was spending time in drug rehab for her addiction.

Anjelique’s story may sound sensational, but in the world of child sex trafficking, it’s painfully normal. Traffickers seek out vulnerable, unhappy teens -- like runaways. Juvenile detention facilities or social services centers such as the one in Hayward are prime recruiting grounds. Sometimes, young women already in the trade become recruiters themselves, approaching other vulnerable girls and offering them what seems like an exciting life. The new recruit comprehends the full reality of her new situation too late. Readily available drugs help numb the pain.

A Sneak Peek at the Seismic Shift in Corporate Tax Breaks

New rules are forcing states and localities to calculate how much revenue they’re losing to business deals -- and whether they pay off. It’s something Washington state has been doing for a decade.
BY  NOVEMBER 2016

Earlier this year, Washington state lawmakers got a wake-up call. A tax incentive package they’d approved in 2013 for aerospace giant Boeing -- largely regarded as the most expensive incentive deal in history -- was actually on pace to surpass its estimated $8.7 billion cost. According to a Department of Revenue report, the deal, which extends to 2040, had already amounted to half a billion dollars in giveaways in just the first two years alone. In other words, the state was losing out on a whole lot more money than it had planned.

And the kicker? Just months earlier, Boeing had announced plans to cut roughly 4,000 jobs in Washington. The year before, the company had transferred thousands more jobs out of the state.

Some lawmakers were livid, openly contemplating whether the state should consider revoking the tax breaks if the company didn’t add back some jobs. (Boeing, for its part, says it has continued to invest in the state, including $1 billion last year for a plant to build its new 777x aircraft.) But on the whole, response from officials and local media was measured. Most lawmakers said that in the bigger picture, the company was still good for Washington.

Big-Box Stores Battle Local Governments Over Property Taxes

The retailers are deploying a ‘dark store’ strategy that’s hurting cities and counties around the country

BY  SEPTEMBER 2016

On Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, big-box stores are a modern necessity. Where towns are spaced far apart and winters are long, one-stop shopping to load up on supplies adds a crucial convenience to what can be -- at least for many -- a rugged existence.

Landing one large retailer is a coup. Having more than one can make a city or town a regional shopping destination. Marquette Township, a small community adjacent to the larger city of Marquette, is in the unique position of having a handful of big-box chain stores. Taking advantage of the fact that the city of Marquette was mostly built out, the township began encouraging large-scale commercial development on its western edge early in the 2000s.

The China Factor in America's State and Local Economies

As the world's second-largest economy falters, pensions and tax revenues here are feeling the pinch.

BY  AUGUST 2016

Earlier this summer, New York state’s pension fund announced a mediocre year. Investment earnings were essentially flat, and as a result the fund lost $5 billion because its other receipts -- contributions from government and from current employees -- didn’t cover retiree payouts.

The New York pension system was the victim of a global event that began halfway across the world a year ago this month. In August 2015, the world’s second-largest economy officially began to stumble. China’s central bank stunned investors by devaluing the yuan, lending credence to what outsiders had long been suspecting: China’s years of astounding annual economic growth -- at times cresting at double digits -- was slowing down.

Is Kurt Summers the Future of Chicago Politics?

The city’s young treasurer has turned a moribund office into a hive of activity, fueling speculation that he has higher aspirations.
BY  JULY 2016

On a cool late-spring evening in the Wild 100s of Chicago, an area on the far South Side known for its gang wars, Kurt Summers Jr. is addressing a small crowd gathered inside a once-gleaming 1920s retail building. There used to be a beauty school here; later the building housed a counseling service and a check cashing store. But even those businesses are gone. This community, built by middle- and working-class Dutch families 15 miles from downtown, never recovered from the closing of the South Chicago steel plants in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, it’s a symbol of violent crime and urban decay.

But to Summers, who grew up on the South Side, violence is only a symptom of the community’s real dilemma. “We don’t have a violence problem in Chicago, we have an economic problem in Chicago,” he tells the crowd of about two dozen residents, who applaud in agreement.