Pension Dollars Keep Rural Communities Alive

Driving along the interstates throughout North Carolina you can see the growing skylines of the cities and construction of new business. It’s not until you start driving down the smaller state maintained highways that you start to come into the more than 450 towns within our state with populations fewer than 10,000. Towns that aren’t nearly as prosperous as their neighbors on the interstates. These are the towns with the shrinking populations.

“National economic trends coupled with population declines have had a devasting impact on many small towns and rural areas across America. Often, the largest employer in these smaller towns is a public entity like a school system or municipality that employs teachers, nurses, firefighters, and public safety officials. These public employees spend their career serving their communities at a time when a growing number of young workers are leaving their hometowns for job opportunities in urban areas,” said Dan Doonan, National Institute on Retirement Security executive director.

These are the town that are more dependent on the incomes of its residents than on the tax revenues brought in from major corporations and big developments. These are the towns where the residents that worked there for the community are more likely to retire there. And these are the towns where their public pension benefits go beyond the retirees and their families. Their benefit dollars also play a critical role in supporting the local economies.

Retired public employees spend their pension income in their towns on goods and services like housing, food, medicine and clothing, which serves as a stable source of economic activity in smaller communities

Dan Doonan, NIRS executive director

Research by the NIRS revealed that, in absolute terms, the greatest number of public pension recipients and, therefore, public pension benefit dollars, reside in big cities. But because the economies in the cities are large and complex, the economic impact of pension benefit dollars is modest. However, in small towns and rural areas where the economies are more dependent on the income of its residents, the economic impact of pension benefit dollars goes farther.

The NIRS examined the economic impact of public pension benefit dollars at the county level in 2,922 counties across 43 states representing every region of the country. North Carolina was one of the seven states that was not included in the research.

The analysis of the data reveals that pension benefit dollars account for an average of 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in those counties. NIRS believes this is because many rural areas have agriculture-dependent economies. Farms often are described as “asset rich, but cash poor.” This means that the value of the land, equipment, and goods produced is high, but the monthly cash income of the farmers is relatively low. Therefore, the pension benefit dollars in these counties represent a greater portion of personal income than GDP.

Likewise, the benefit dollars make up an average of 1.25% of the total personal income in the counties. Therefore, GDP and total personal income derived by pensions are why these communities experienced the greatest relative economic benefit from public pension benefit dollars.

“Eventually, public employees in rural and smaller communities retire and typically stay in their hometown. Retired public employees spend their pension income in their towns on goods and services like housing, food, medicine and clothing, which serves as a stable source of economic activity in smaller communities. Our analysis clearly indicates that pension spending provides a substantial economic impact on struggling small towns and rural communities across the nation,” Doonan explained.

The NRIS analysis reveals two interesting effects taking place in rural counties concerning pension benefits. Pension benefit dollars provide metropolitan and rural counties similar levels of GDP, but rural areas have a greater percentage of personal income from pension dollars.

Additionally, the conversation about public pensions should not focus solely on the dollars contributed to the plans, it also must acknowledge substantial economic impact they have across the state, especially in the rural areas.