Playing to the Women's Vote

No issue will be more hotly debated in the presidential campaign than the future of Social Security. And no group of voters will be more courted than women.

These factors were wrapped into a kind of political confection last week by Democratic contender Al Gore. The vice president proposed to provide retirement payments from the Social Security fund to women who have spent years at home caring for children.

Mr. Gore's premise is that all mothers would otherwise choose to be in the workforce, where they would make payments to Social Security and earn the same retirement benefits as workers who actually pay into the system.

His idea received quick plaudits from some women's groups. But it also provoked groans from those whose main concern is sustaining the fund well into the 21st-century and who want to keep the retirement system based on a strict accounting of real earnings in the workplace.

How do we calculate what a mother might have earned at a job and thus her retirement benefits? And then there's the problem that the estimated $100 billion cost of this plan would absorb roughly 5 percent of the anticipated surplus in the Social Security trust fund over the next 10 years.

Theoretically, the system could handle that. But the economic forecasts on which the surplus figures rest are always liable to shift. Adding significant obligations is a questionable strategy at best. Better to preserve the Social Security surplus to shore up the system.

We look forward to hearing more on how Gore and George W. Bush would save and improve Social Security. The Gore proposal, though dubious, is a worthy idea in the debate.

The quest for women's votes will play out over an array of issues. Women, after all, represent the full spectrum of political views. Issues that affect the family, at whatever stage of life, are central to their concerns. Keeping Social Security solvent should be their No. 1 concern.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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