Why GOP candidates won't talk about retirement

Americans don’t have to look very far to know the country is facing a retirement crisis. For most of us, a quick check of our own retirement account should do the trick. Or a glance at the newspaper. So why is it that as presidential campaigns heat up, we haven’t heard much about the retirement crisis that voters are facing?

Democrats have shown some interest in the issue, but the silence from the Republican candidates is particularly deafening.

Republican presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz , Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush participate in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz , Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush participate in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California.

Perhaps one of the reasons we aren't hearing more about retirement security from the Republicans is because they know this is an important issue to voters, and voters would be quite disturbed by their track records. In fact, in their careers in business and as elected officials, many of the candidates have weakened—not strengthened—voters' chances of having a secure retirement.

When you take a look at their records, it's quite startling:

Donald Trump, the Republican front runner, offers his employees a 401(k) that makes it difficult to retire. An employee must work at his company for one year and then wait until the end of following calendar year to benefit from 401(k) matching. That means a receptionist could work for Trump for 23 months and walk away with nothing if Trump lets him go.

Ben Carson thinks individual workers should be on their own in retirement. We know Americans are resourceful and ready to put in the time and money to create a better future, but few of us are financial-planning experts. If a worker is one of the lucky ones to have some type of retirement plan offered by their employer, their savings are probably still insufficient. That isn't because workers aren't saving or doing their due diligence; it's because 401(k)s have shifted the burden of managing retirement savings accounts from employers to employees, and all of the benefits to Wall Street. With 401(k)-style plans, the cards are stacked against workers trying to build up their nest eggs.

Jeb Bush wants to make drastic changes to Social Security and as governor of Florida arranged lucrative deals for his future employer, Lehman Brothers, to manage Florida's pension funds. After the economic collapse of 2008, Florida taxpayers were on the hook for $1 billion in losses.

When we do hear from Republicans on the topic of retirement, it comes to their support for raising the retirement age, which is hardly a solution.

Marco Rubio supports significant changes to Social Security, such as raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits. Chris Christie violated the terms of his own law, skipping payments and making New Jersey the most underfunded pension system in the country. Carly Fiorina has advocated to cut public employee pensions and as CEO of Hewlett Packard laid off thousands of workers while receiving a multimillion-dollar golden parachute.

The truth is, at a time when Americans desperately needed a leader to address the retirement crisis, many of the Republican presidential hopefuls actually fed the problem. For the Democrats, it gets a little better. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both shown their support for working families by rejecting proposals to raise the retirement age. Both have also talked about the importance of protecting retirement security, although they have yet to offer many details on what they would do as president to strengthen the ability of all Americans to have a secure retirement.

So what do voters need from a candidate? For starters, we need to start talking about retirement. The economic issues we're facing as a nation — inequality, the gender pay gap and stagnating wages — all come to a head in retirement, and it needs to be part of the national economic discussion.

Second, we need candidates who will promise to protect the retirement benefits we already have. That means supporting policies that strengthen our public pension systems, rather than stripping them of the modest funds that millions of teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public workers rely on after a career serving their communities. And finally, we need lasting solutions that strengthen retirement security by expanding access to pension systems and incentivizing employers to offer high-quality retirement plans.

Commentary by Bailey Childers, an executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition which strives to protect the financial security of working families who rely on public pensions. Follow her at @baileykchilders.