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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Nancy Altman, Eric Kingson,

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

Why 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.


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

By Ellen E. Schultz,

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

Why 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. 


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

By William Wolman, Anne Colamosca,

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 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. 


Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality

By Katherine S. Newman,

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

Why 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.


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

By Eric Laursen,

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

Why 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.


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