This Article makes suggestions for promoting retirement security among low-income workers in Illinois with pointed lessons for workers in other U.S. states. Adapting a framework from a previous study by the principal author, the Article portrays retirement preparedness for low-income workers in Illinois as a function of changes in Social Security, employer-sponsored pensions, and personal assets—the famed “three-legged stool” of retirement income—synchronized with reduction of disparities between socioeconomic groups in education, healthcare, and housing. Many studies on retirement security focus excessively on the national level sometimes at the expense of the subnational phenomena that complicate retirement security and increase the sense of crisis many stakeholders feel about the topic. This piece seeks to redress the imbalance in analytic focus in the existing literature by contributing evidence from Illinois, a key state in the Midwest. It joins the small but growing number of studies at the subnational level.

Although focused on Illinois, this Article is imbued with comparative salience that goes beyond this Midwest state: its analysis holds important best-practice lessons for other U.S. jurisdictions on how not to conduct retirement security, prominent among those lessons being not to compound retirement insecurity in the private sector with deliberate underfunding of pensions in the public sector as Illinois dubiously does.

On this count, the Article draws three over-arching conclusions. First, the underfunding of public pensions can have a profound impact on retirement insecurity for low-income workers. Too often, retirement security is measured primarily based on the retirement picture for private-sector workers with an implied assumption that all is well with public-sector workers. However, the underfunding of public-sector pensions means that states must consider a broader scope of workers when responding to the threat of retirement insecurity. Second, federal legislation and programs will impact the ability of states to promote retirement security for lower-income workers, particularly with respect to education, healthcare, and homeownership, in which areas the federal government ultimately takes the lead, relegating the states to little more than a supporting role. Third, when it comes to reduction in disparities among socioeconomic groups that form a necessary element in this Article, the legacy of one federal administration in the areas of education, healthcare, and homeownership is best viewed as fragile, in that hard-won gains for low-income workers in these areas emanating from the national level may be altered by subsequent administrations.