R. KENT WEAVER
CUTTING PENSIONS FOR THE ELDERLY IS A DIFFICULT TASK FOR ANY government.1 The elderly are a large, politically active group, and they are viewed sympathetically by the rest of the electorate. In pension programs that are based on a system of contributory social insurance, a sense that benefits have been “earned” adds to recipients’ perception of entitlement and of the inviolability of prior commitments. Moreover, even those who are too young to receive old-age pensions currently may view themselves as being indirectly hurt by cutbacks, either because it will lower their benefits in the future or because it will force them to give additional help to elderly relatives. Yet reform of public pensions has been on the agenda in both Canada and the United States—more frequently in the former—over the past two decades.
The first section of this paper outlines common pressures for austerity that have given rise to pension reform initiatives in the U.S. and Canada and discusses differences in political institutions and policy legacies that might lead to different policy outcomes in the two countries. The middle two sections review the experiences of the two countries with pension reform. The final section reflects on and tries to draw lessons from these experiences with respect to the political limits on pension reform in particular and on loss imposition in general in the two political systems.