October 2, 2011 -- Retirement programs for former federal workers — civilian and military — are growing so fast they now face a multitrillion-dollar shortfall nearly as big as Social Security's, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
The federal government hasn't set aside money or created a revenue source similar to Social Security's payroll tax to help pay for the benefits, so the retirement costs must be paid every year through taxes and borrowing.
The government paid a record $268 billion in pension and health benefits last year to 10 million former civil servants, military personnel and their dependents, about $100 billion more than was paid a decade earlier after adjusting for inflation. And $7 billion more was deposited into tax-deferred accounts of current workers.
In addition, the federal government last year made more than a half-trillion dollars in future commitments, valued in 2010 dollars that will cost far more to pay in coming decades. Added last year:
•$107 billion in retirement benefits accumulated by current workers.
•$106 billion in new benefits granted to veterans.
•More than $300 billion in the snowballing expense of previous retirement promises that have no source of funding.
In all, the government committed more money to the 10 million former public servants last year than the $690 billion it paid to 54 million Social Security beneficiaries.
The retirement programs now have a $5.7 trillion unfunded liability, compared with a $6.5 trillion shortfall for Social Security. An unfunded liability is the difference between a program's projected costs and its projected revenues, both valued in today's dollars.
USA TODAY's analysis is the first comprehensive calculation of how much the government spends on benefits for retired federal workers. The $275 billion paid last year — roughly two-thirds cash, one-third medical benefits — are spread over dozens of overlapping programs in many departments and agencies.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress in June in his final budget testimony that health care costs "are eating us (the Defense Department) alive."
Private employers are legally required to put money into pension funds to match retirement promises. Private pensions have $2.3 trillion in stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets. State and local governments have $3 trillion in retirement funds. The federal government has nothing set aside.
Shane Barker, a lobbyist for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, says it would be unfair to cut retirement benefits. "What draws people into the armed services? Basically good retirement and great health care," he says.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a member of the Armed Services Committee, says retirement benefits are an extremely sensitive issue. "We have a disconnect between all these sacred promises we've made and how they are not backed up by anything," he says.