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Romans, booty and sailors: all part of the history of pensions

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Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
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Large cities began offering pensions to police officers and firefighters in the 1800s. In the photograph, police patrol marching outside Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pa. circa 1910.

As we were reporting on the problem of unfunded pensions in Pennsylvania, it occurred to us to ask: How did pensions come about, anyway? Who ever thought to let people retire and keep paying them after they’ve stopped working? And is the problem of underfunded pensions a recent phenomenon?


Our attempts to answer these questions pointed us to North Carolina State University professor of economics Robert Clark, who wrote "A History of Public Sector Pensions in the United States."

In the book, Clark makes the point that this problem of underfunded pensions has been around for thousands of years—even as far back as the Roman Republic. Clark says Romans gave their retired soldiers land as a way to keep them loyal, but actual payments happened on a case-by-case basis, leaving some soldiers without benefits. The nonpayment of this promised land had a hand in the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

This is part of a series of stories on Pennsylvania's municipal pensions, which are airing on WPSU this week. Read the full version of this report at the website of Keystone Crossroads, a new statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania's cities. WPSU is a participating station. 

Kate Lao Shaffner was the Keystone Crossroads Reporter for WPSU-FM from 2014-2015. She reports on infrastructure, economic, legal, and financial issues in Pennsylvania with reporters from WHYY (Philadelphia), WITF (Harrisburg), and WESA (Pittsburgh).
Irina Zhorov was WESA’s reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative focused on issues in older Pennsylvania communities.
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