Founder / Editor


Associate Editor


Assistant Editor











PBS' 'Frontline’ Examines Pension Promises and — Spoiler Alert — Finds the Math Doesn’t Add Up
October 22, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 2029 comments

Picture if you will, a corporation that makes a product people not just want but need, a corporation that puts all its efforts into boosting this quarter’s profit statements, with little thought for what comes afterward.

Picture that you’re a shareholder who has contributed to the corporation’s portfolio your entire working life. You’re counting on your shares to keep you comfortable when you’re old and infirm, and no longer able to work.

Picture that, one day, with little warning and without your knowing it, the corporation reveals it has amassed massive debt, much more than its stock is worth, and you’re facing financial ruin at that exact time in life when you’re least able to deal with it. What do you do? What can you do?

That’s the question that drove veteran PBS' Frontline correspondent Martin Smith when he began research on his latest investigative report The Pension Gamble (Tuesday, 10:00 p.m. ET, check local listings).

Don’t scoff. For “corporation,” substitute “state government;” for “stock portfolio,” substitute “government pension.”

Among the sobering details Smith and longtime Frontline producers Marcela Gaviria and Nick Verbitsky discovered straight out of the gate is that nearly half of state governments across the U.S. haven’t saved enough money to pay the pension benefits they’ve promised their workers.

The cumulative red ink adds up to trillions of dollars — not billions, but trillions.

You don’t need an advanced degree in economics — a grasp of basic math will do — to realize that the potential fallout could equal the effects of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, which cost the economy $12.8 trillion (according to the non-profit financial reform advocacy group Better Markets in 2013).

As with past Frontline investigative programs, The Pension Gamble doesn’t have any silver-bullet solutions; it’s more of a step-by-step, painstaking account of how the perpetrators of a crisis got themselves into a mess, more often than not of their own making. The Pension Gamble is about the process, not the solution. If Frontline’s producers had any answers, they probably wouldn’t be making investigative programs for PBS.

Still, the news is about telling us things we didn’t know before. The best news programs — and Frontline is up there — tell us what we need to know, not necessarily what we want to hear. To know a thing, you have to know where it begins and ends, and where its edges are.

And the story Smith uncovers in The Pension Gamble is worrying. (Why we have to learn about this on PBS, rather than, say, Fox News, is a question for another day. An entire graduate course in journalism could be based on that one issue alone.)

The Pension Gamble focuses on Kentucky, an ardently — and unapologetically — conservative, Republican-voting state that prizes family values, hard work and making personal sacrifices to make ends meet. Hard work is rewarded, or so people are taught from an early age. Laziness will not be countenanced. “Work shy” are not words you often hear in Kentucky.

As Smith points out in The Pension Gamble’s opening moments, though, “This is a story about gambling, and making bad bets.”

It’s about having a retirement that you thought was secure go south — and not to the sunny climes of Florida and Arizona, where retirees flock to get away from the brutal winters of the urban Northeast and rural Midwest.

To dismiss government workers — as some do — as being somehow less worthy, less deserving than those who choose to work for private industry is lazy and disingenuous. Government workers aren’t just paper pushers — they include teachers, police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders. Frontline producers chose Kentucky, Smith says, because the Bluegrass State’s pension scheme is among the most underfunded in the country.

As a gag, but also to illustrate a point, Smith places a $100 bet on a horse named “Promises Fulfilled” in the Kentucky Derby. He doesn’t expect much: The horse is rated a 50:1 long shot.

“On the other hand, if it won, I would win $5,000.”

Spoiler alert! You can guess the rest. (Though not how: In the grand tradition of TV, the actual race turns out to feature more twists and turns than you might expect.)

What happens in Kentucky doesn’t stay in Kentucky. “It matters what happens in Kentucky,” says Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R). “Because what is Kentucky’s problem is New Jersey’s problem, is Illinois’ problem, is Connecticut’s problem, is California’s problem, and just on and on and on.

“This is a crisis of epic proportion in the United States of America, and it’s time to wake up and address it.”

The social contract lies at the heart of The Pension Gamble — the unspoken idea that, in exchange for lower pay than they might get in private industry, government workers will be looked after later in life, and have money deducted from their paychecks along the way to help pay for it.

Over time, though, faced by one crisis after another, state governments took money set aside for pensions and assigned it to general revenue. The trouble with that, as more than one economist notes in the program, is that one day the bill will come due. Kentucky was hit hard in the 2008 market crash, but it was not alone.

Wall Street hedge funds jumped into the fray, pushing the familiar line, “No risk, no gain,” eager to prey on gullible state governments desperate to recoup their losses in the market crash.

In the end, one of several experts cited midway through The Pension Gamble cites a familiar refrain: There were abuses. No laws were broken, but disclosure rules were shuffled aside and overlooked, where they weren’t ignored entirely.

With state pensions, as with so many other things in life, the law and the spirit of the law don’t always meet.

As with other Frontline programs, The Pension Gamble might not seem like entertaining viewing at first glance. Anyone interested in pension funds and how they work — or don’t work — should give it a look, though. Every so often, a fishing expedition lands a big one.

Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 Name (required)
 Email (required) (will not be published)
Type in the verification word shown on the image.
 Page: 1 of 102  | Go to page: 
I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style of blogging. I added it to my favorites blog site list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my site as well and let me know what you think.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
This is why promoting for you to suitable seek ahead of creating. It's going to be uncomplicated to jot down outstanding write-up doing this.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
hi was just seeing if you minded a comment. i like your website and the thme you picked is super. I will be back.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
Hey I am browsing your article on my Blackberry and I was imagining how cool it will be on my soon to be purchased ipad. Fleeting thought…. Anyway thanks!
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
This is why promoting for you to suitable seek ahead of creating. It's going to be uncomplicated to jot down outstanding write-up doing this.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
construction jobs are on the rise again these days because the recession is almost over,
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
Acquiring some separation lawyers permits a portion of the pressure to make sure you settle down in a breakup.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
This is additionally a fairly excellent post that individuals undoubtedly appreciated studying. Definitely not everyday which usually take pleasure in the odds to discover a merchandise.
Dec 2, 2023   |  Reply
It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I've read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I want to read more things about it!
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
It’s awesome to pay a visit this web page and reading the views of all colleagues concerning this piece of writing, while I am also zealous of getting knowledge.
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
That is the excellent mindset, nonetheless is just not help to make every sence whatsoever preaching about that mather. Virtually any method many thanks in addition to i had endeavor to promote your own article in to delicius nevertheless it is apparently a dilemma using your information sites can you please recheck the idea. thanks once more.
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
It is simultaneously a good location that we very savored searching. Is not daily that offer the chance to see a product.
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
Only aspire to mention ones content can be as incredible. This clarity with your post is superb and that i may think you’re a guru for this issue. High-quality along with your concur permit me to to seize your current give to keep modified by using approaching blog post. Thanks a lot hundreds of along with you should go on the pleasurable get the job done.
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
I am another client of this site so here I saw different articles and posts posted by this site,I inquisitive more enthusiasm for some of them trust you will give more data on this points in your next articles.
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
Because of this, it is possible that conducting research prior to making a decision could prove to be more beneficial. When you use this strategy, you will be able to reduce the amount of text you write.
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
Dec 1, 2023   |  Reply
A formidable share, I just given this onto a colleague who was doing a bit of evaluation on this. And he in truth bought me breakfast as a result of I discovered it for him.. smile. So let me reword that: Thnx for the treat! However yeah Thnkx for spending the time to debate this, I really feel strongly about it and love studying more on this topic. If attainable, as you develop into experience, would you mind updating your blog with more details? It’s extremely helpful for me. Huge thumb up for this weblog put up!
This is promoting special offers activities to help you valuable take a look at prior to putting up. Put simply to put in writing more potent position this way.
Nov 30, 2023   |  Reply
When the time comes to file an appeal or defend a position on appeal, clients routinely turn to Brownstone Law for innovating appellate solutions and strategies that solve real-world problems.
Nov 30, 2023   |  Reply
 Page: 1 of 102  | Go to page: