Bob devoted his life to teaching. After 35 years in the classroom in both Oklahoma and Missouri and summers and weekends in the construction and insurance industries to supplement his modest teaching salary, he was ready to retire.
He thought he was entitled to a monthly Social Security benefit of $980. But when he retired, he was shocked to learn that he would receive only $397 a month. Little did Bob realize that his move to Missouri cost him the majority of his expected Social Security benefit.
How can this be? Bob learned the hard way about a little known Social Security measure that limits benefits for hundreds of thousands of public workers who draw pensions from more than one source.
Teachers and other public workers around the country supplement their income in jobs from running summer camps to selling real estate. They also pay taxes and contribute to Social Security at these weekend jobs.
But under the Social Security Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), not all public workers, including many in Missouri, get back from Social Security what they paid in.
It gets worse for Bob and others. Another Social Security peculiarity, the Government Pension Offset (GPO) limits the amount of survivor benefits some public workers can receive from Social Security. Bob’s wife worked and earned full Social Security benefits. If Bob had never worked at all and never paid anything into Social Security, he would be eligible to receive 100 percent of the survivor benefit should his wife die before he does. But because of the GPO, he will get zero.
Who can blame talented teachers and other public servants who decide to go somewhere else or pursue other fields because of these penalties? Employees in the private sector who supplement their income are in no danger of having their Social Security benefits reduced. Why should our teachers and other public employees be singled out?
The WEP and GPO provisions hurt public workers in Missouri because most teachers in Missouri -- and some other public servants -- are not part of the Social Security system. Instead, teachers pay into the Missouri Public School Retirement System.
Missouri’s dilemma traces back to its decision to pay into its own retirement system for teachers rather than participating in Social Security when the system was first established. In addition to Missouri, 12 other states opted out of Social Security for some of its public workers, including teachers. These states include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas.
The WEP and GPO may sound like alphabet soup to most Missourians. But these acronyms cause teacher retirees to lose many thousands of dollars each year—money that can make the difference between self-sufficiency and poverty. These retirees have less money to spend in their local economies and sometimes have to turn to expensive government programs like food stamps to make ends meet.
The WEP and GPO were enacted into law in the 1970s and 80s. Could the members of Congress who voted for these provisions have foreseen the effects on thousands of teachers like Bob? Or the impact on education for generations of Missouri students?
It’s time for Missouri and other states to improve its record on providing retiring public servants the hard-earned benefits they deserve.
Congress is currently considering a measure that would repeal the GPO and WEP restrictions for Social Security benefits to public workers in pension plans affected by the provision. It’s a measure long overdue.
Missouri’s system of penalizing teachers and others for service is costing hard working former public servants thousands of dollars in Social Security benefits that they would be entitled to in most other states. It is also costing Missouri quality public servants who decide to move into the private sector or move to another state.
Bob and other public servants worked hard to stay in education and provide for their families. It’s time we stopped penalizing them for choosing to dedicate their careers to Missouri children.
by Greg Jung
Missouri NEA President