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Gore would credit time moms spend at home

His plan for Social Security would also let widows and widowers keep more benefits after their spouses die.

©Los Angeles Times, published April 5, 2000

PHILADELPHIA -- Sharpening a debate likely to resonate through the general election, Vice President Al Gore proposed Tuesday to increase Social Security benefits for stay-at-home mothers and widows and escalated his attacks on rival George W. Bush's plans for revamping the nation's retirement system.

Speaking exactly 65 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation creating Social Security, Gore proposed a significant benefit expansion he said was needed to make the system "fairer for American women."

Gore's plan, which would cost about $100-billion over the next decade, would allow mothers who stay home with small children to receive larger retirement benefits by crediting their Social Security account as if they had remained in the work force during those years. It also would increase payments to widows and widowers who can suffer precipitous benefit reductions when their spouses die.

At the same time, Gore charged that Bush's proposals to create private investment accounts within Social Security -- and his call for a sweeping, across-the-board tax cut -- would fundamentally endanger the system. "If he got his hands on America's retirement system," Gore charged, "it would quickly become a system of social insecurity."

Campaigning nearby in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bush dismissed the criticism and charged that Gore and President Clinton have squandered the opportunity to strengthen and reform the system.

"There needs to be Social Security reform in order to make sure there's a Social Security system at all," Bush said.

Both men were campaigning in Pennsylvania, a potentially pivotal state in the fall, on the day it was holding its primary.

In political terms, Gore's plan appeared aimed primarily at one of the key swing voting blocks in the electorate: married women, especially those with children.

Though married women generally backed Republican presidential candidates in the 1980s, Clinton carried a plurality of their votes in 1996. Recent polls show Bush, who has stressed his commitment to education, is moving many of those voters back into the GOP column.

Specifically, Gore's plan would tackle what he called "the motherhood penalty" in Social Security. Since Social Security benefits are based on a person's average earnings during their working lifetime, women who stay home to raise children can be hurt because their average is reduced by the years they remain out of the work force.

To mitigate that problem, Gore proposed that women who stay home with children (or work part-time) should be credited under Social Security as if they had been earning $16,500 a year for up to five years (That figure is one-half the average wage). His aides said the plan would benefit as many as to 8-million workers, most of them women, and increase retirement benefits for those affected by an average of $600 a year.

Gore said the change was necessary "to honor the work that women do and that others do in raising children without requiring a large financial sacrifice."

The second prong of Gore's plan would allow widows and widowers to keep 75 percent of a family's joint benefit when their spouse dies. Under current law, he said, benefits can be cut to half or two-thirds of the previous level.

Aides did not release a specific cost for the proposals, but said it would be less than 5 percent of the anticipated Social Security surplus -- now projected at about $2-trillion over the next decade. That would cost about $100-billion.

Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, praised the plan and said Gore had set the earnings credit at "a generous level" since the median income for women workers in 1998 was only $17,500. "For some women, they would be getting a credit for their child raising years that would be larger than their earnings," she said.

Bush didn't specifically respond to the initiative, but more broadly argued that the best way to ensure "benefits for all women" is "to reform the system."

Though Bush hasn't fully detailed his plans, the question of how to shore up the nation's principal programs for the elderly -- both Social Security and Medicare -- is emerging as one of the clearest contrasts between the two presumptive nominees in the fall election.

A parallel debate is emerging between the two men. In his speech Tuesday, Gore says that both programs can be stabilized essentially through the infusion of funds from the federal surplus without major structural changes. And he says there is even enough money to enhance benefits: prescription drugs under Medicare and the new credit for mothers under Social Security. Bush, by contrast, contends that Gore and Clinton are endangering the programs by resisting necessary modernization and reforms to give individuals more choice.

Without specifying an exact amount, Bush has proposed that younger workers be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into individual retirement accounts they could invest in the stock market themselves. Bush has also refused to rule out an increase in the retirement age as part of an overall reform package.

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