The best books on retirement plans if you don’t trust Wall Street

James W. Russell Author Of The Labor Guide to Retirement Plans: For Union Organizers and Employees
By James W. Russell

Who am I?

I became fascinated with retirement plans and policy when I realized that my 401(k)-like retirement plan with a high rate of savings and investment returns would still come up way short in terms of the retirement income needed for me and my family. That led me to initiate a winning campaign to allow those of us in that plan to switch to our employer’s pension plan. In leading that struggle, I had to learn everything possible, beyond what I already knew, about retirement plans. I have a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin and have studied retirement plans in Latin America and Europe as well as the United States.

I wrote...

The Labor Guide to Retirement Plans: For Union Organizers and Employees

By James W. Russell,

Book cover of The Labor Guide to Retirement Plans: For Union Organizers and Employees

What is my book about?

What do workers need to know as they assess the security of their retirement plans? What should union activists keep in mind as they push for the national and workplace reforms needed to produce greater retirement security? This nuts-and-bolts book provides a much-needed demystification of the retirement system and enables workers to take charge of their own personal futures.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Social Security Works!: Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All

Why did I love this book?

This is the place to start since it treats the base of our national retirement system—our national pension. I don’t think there’s anybody who knows more about Social Security than Altman and Kingson. They are the founders of the advocacy organization by the same name, Social Security Works. It is their job, and they do it well, to explain why Social Security works as well as it does despite the claims of its right-wing enemies and what we have to do to protect it from attempts to privatize it or reduce its benefits. This is not just a manifesto, it contains a ton of clearly-written information about how Social Security as a social insurance system works and what can be done to make it better.

By Nancy Altman, Eric Kingson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Social Security Works! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A growing chorus of prominent voices in Congress and elsewhere are calling for the expansion of our Social Security system. Social Security Works! amplifies these voices and offers a powerful antidote to the three-decade long, billionaire- funded campaign to make us believe that this vital institution is destined to collapse. It isn't. From the Silent Generation to Baby Boomers, from Generation X to Millennials and Generation Z, everyone now has a stake in understanding the real story about Social Security. Destined to be a game-changer, setting a strategy to benefit all.

Book cover of Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers

Why did I love this book?

Retirement Heist is a tour de force. It is a book to make you informed and angry about why pension plans are disappearing in the private sector. In a few words, according to former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Schultz, it was because corporations took financially healthy pension plans and diverted their surpluses to other uses to inflate their bottom lines. They then ended the plans when they inevitably became financially weaker, substituting them for 401(k)s that do not produce near as much retirement security. 

By Ellen E. Schultz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Retirement Heist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2012 Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism

Hundreds of companies have slashed pensions and health coverage for millions of retirees, claiming that a “perfect storm” of stock market losses, aging workers, and spiraling costs have forced them to take drastic measures.

But this so-called retirement crisis is no accident. Ellen E. Schultz, an award-winning investigative reporter formerly of The Wall Street Journal, reveals how large employers and the retirement industry have all played a huge and hidden role in the death spiral of American pensions and benefits.

A little over a decade ago, pension plans…

Book cover of The Great 401(k) Hoax: Why Your Family's Financial Security Is at Risk, and What You Can Do about It

Why did I love this book?

Wolman and Colmosca, former BusinessWeek writers, were among the early writers to expose just how bad 401(k)s were for workers. They showed how Wall Street interests profited from the plans at the expense of retirement security. They knew a lot about stock market investing and doubted that, even in the best of situations, the stock market would be able to produce enough value to adequately support retirees. They came to the conclusion that the 401(k) system could not be reformed and should be abolished. I liked the book because it was coming from people within the system (BusinessWeek) who realized that it was not working. 

By William Wolman, Anne Colamosca,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great 401(k) Hoax as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The American public was hoodwinked: 401(k)s were established to satisfy corporations, not the interests of working Americans. Portrayed as a perpetual wealth machine, the 401(k) was meant to satisfy the needs of every employee. Yet, it was an impossible promise to fulfill: It was the great 401(k) hoax. According to William Wolman and Anne Colamosca, this was the latest act in the gradual erosion of the nation's retirement system. Drawing from reams of historical and contemporary data as well as economic, social, and political trends, they reveal the system's troubled 100year history. Beyond exposing the hoax, the authors urge everyone…

Book cover of Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality

Why did I love this book?

I like this book because it provides a sociological portrait of the retirement crisis. Newman digs deep into the impact on people of losing pensions because of corporate shenanigans. She digs into the threatened cutting of Teamster pension benefits and what happened to municipal employee retirees and near-retirees when Detroit declared bankruptcy. She marshaled her considerable sociological research skills to lay bare the human face of the retirement crisis.

By Katherine S. Newman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Downhill from Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A sharp examination of the looming financial catastrophe of retirement in America.

As millions of Baby Boomers reach their golden years, the state of retirement in America is little short of a disaster. Nearly half the households with people aged 55 and older have no retirement savings at all. The real estate crash wiped out much of the home equity that millions were counting on to support their retirement. And the typical Social Security check covers less than 40% of pre-retirement wages―a number projected to drop to under 28% within two decades. Old-age poverty, a problem we thought was solved…

Book cover of The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan

Why did I love this book?

At first, the sheer size of this book—over eight hundred pages—intimidated me. But then as I got into it, I realized that it was well worth the time. This is the definitive account of the political struggle between the defenders and enemies of Social Security since the Reagan years. The defenders want to expand the program. Its enemies ultimately want to privatize it to benefit Wall Street or, at the least, reduce its benefits so that people have no other recourse than saving through 401(k)s. I like it because Laursen both understood what was at stake and was able to insightfully document what happened.

By Eric Laursen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The People's Pension as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Readers mystified by the yawning gulf between public opinion and current political discussion might benefit from the background provided in Eric Laursen’s magisterial history, 'The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan' The book offers more than 800 pages of fascinating if gory details about the lobbying efforts and misinformation campaigns aimed at bringing the program down."—Nancy Folbre, NYTimes Economix Blog

“Laursen has given us a comprehensive account of the three decade long war against Social Security. . . . This is a fascinating history that progressives must learn, not only to protect Social Security but also…

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