No `motherhood penalty'

Social Security: Gore's plan brings some equity to women's benefits, but how will he pay for it?

April 26, 2000

VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore has hit on a basic flaw in Social Security benefits that keeps many widowed women in poverty. Yet in proposing a solution, the presidential candidate failed to come up with a responsible way to pay for it.

This leaves him open to criticism that he's pandering to women voters. Mr. Gore wants to expand women's benefits by $100 billion over 10 years without first reforming the Social Security system that must support this added burden.

That's disingenuous. Mr. Gore has been unwilling to acknowledge the looming Social Security crisis and support changes to ward off the program's insolvency.

Even with revised, brighter projections, Social Security will become insolvent in 2037. By 2030, the ratio of workers to retirees will drop from the current 3-1 to just 2-1; the number of Social Security recipients will grow by 75 percent in the next quarter-century.

Who's going to pay the bill? Neither Republican candidate George W. Bush nor Mr. Gore has been frank with voters.

Instead, Mr. Gore has diverted attention by pointing to a longstanding inequity in Social Security benefits that contributes to many senior women living in poverty. Women who stay at home with their children are penalized when collecting Social Security. And female survivors often find they can barely make ends meet on the 50 percent of their spouses' Social Security checks.

Under the Gore plan, some 8 million women would gain an average of $600 more a year, with lower-income women getting an extra $2,100. Female survivors would receive 75 percent of their working spouses' benefits.

Those changes would cut the number of elderly single women in poverty by nearly 50 percent.

We agree with Mr. Gore that "the motherhood penalty" needs to be addressed. But there's a bigger question to resolve.

The next president must shape public debate on how to put the Social Security system on firm financial ground. Part of that debate should be focused on giving women greater equity in their retirement benefits.

But Mr. Gore serves voters poorly by raising that issue without first putting forth a detailed plan for saving Social Security from future insolvency.

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