Setting Seniors Free

Sometimes Congress can act with speed and unity of purpose. Take last week's unanimous House of Representatives' vote to jettison a Depression-era law that discourages older Americans drawing Social Security from working.

The Senate is primed to follow suit, and President Clinton promises to sign the bill if it reaches his desk minus other riders, such as tax cuts.

Why the sudden adoption of a measure that has kicked around Congress for decades?

First, it's politically popular.

The American Association of Retired Persons, a potent lobbying force, has hailed the demise of the earnings limit, which deprived those aged 65 to 70 of $1 in Social Security benefits from every $3 they earned over $17,000 a year. (The penalty is even harsher for early retirees aged 62 to 65, and that restriction would remain in effect.)

Second, ending the earnings limit for older Americans makes good economic sense. Today's economy cries out for eager, qualified workers. Seniors are a huge, quickly growing, and very reliable corps of potential employees.

It's likely many of them will increase their hours, or find more rewarding jobs, when they no longer have to worry about losing their benefits if they work too diligently.

Moreover, the added pay-roll taxes a liberated older workforce will pay into the Social Security system should quickly offset the cost of doing away with the earnings penalty.

But perhaps the best reason to get rid of this penalty is to reject, at long last, the limited thinking that law embodied. In the job-poor 1930s, it may have made sense to encourage seniors to stop working so that younger people could get the jobs. There's no such need today. More important, the earnings penalty reinforced the notion that older people naturally become idle, that their capacities decline.

Lots of Americans are disproving that theory. Government is right to step aside and let them show they're still vital contributors to the nation's prosperity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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