Women & pensions

The new congressional legislation aimed at equalizing many pension benefits for men and women is based on simple justice. Lawmakers are on solid ground in speedily approving the bill. And President Reagan - who also favors the measure - should sign it as quickly as possible.

The measure - the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 - is legislation that should have been adopted years ago. Technically, it applies to both men and women. But what it in fact does is to make important changes in the nation's pension laws to correct many of the inequities that currently work against women. Among some of the act's more important provisions:

* The measure lowers from 25 to 21 the age at which workers can participate in a pension plan. Women tend to enter the work force at an early age, then leave after a few years to raise a family.

* The measure allows a woman to receive the retirement benefits of a spouse who is vested (i.e, legally qualified) in a pension program, even if the spouse passes on before reaching the early retirement age.

* It provides a one-year maternity or paternity leave without counting that year as a break in service for purposes of considering vesting.

* It requires a spouse to give written consent before an employee can waive retirement benefits. And it provides that a divorced party has legal rights to some of the pension benefits of his or her spouse.

Just how important are such provisions? According to the US Census, 4 out of 5 women in the United States lack any kind of private pension whatsoever. Those women who do receive private pension benefits receive an amount far less than men. Granted, a higher percentage of women will have pensions (and more equal pensions) in future years, since over one-half of all women are now in the labor force. But certainly for the 1980s and the 1990s women will continue to receive far less in pension benefits than men.

There is another, more unpleasant element in the equation that underscores the need for greater equality regarding pensions. Over 80 percent of all women over age 65, according to government studies, live below official poverty lines. One reason: demographics. Women tend to outlive their spouses. Thus, receiving private pension benefits, no matter how modest, could make a substantial difference in raising the future standard of living for many women.

Equalizing pension benefits between men and women ought not be considered merely in terms of dollar outlays. Rather, it is the type of basic fairness that a truly civilized society cannot afford to ignore.

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