The Economic Equity Act of 1985, introduced in the House yesterday, has 22 provisions designed to improve the economic circumstances of widows, working women, mothers in housing projects, families caring for disabled relatives, and homemakers. Some of the provisions were included in previous Economic Equity Acts and did not pass, while others break new ground in addressing the changing lives of American women.
In the current cost-cutting and revenue-enhancing climate in Congress, many of the provisions probably face a bleak and uncertain future. The omnibus legislation, however, is being sponsored by 81 members of the House and has been put together by the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. The caucus has a record of accomplishments: It was the organizing force behind laws to strengthen child support enforcement, to protect former military and civil service spouses and laws reforming private and public pensions to reflect the work patterns of women.
The 1985 act would further pension reforms in ways that would benefit both sexes. According to a caucus briefing paper, the median number of years in one job was 3.7 years for women and 5.1 years for men in 1983. In that same year, 11.3 percent of women over 65 received private pensions averaging $2,634 a year, and 29.6 percent of men over 65 received private pensions or annuities averaging $4,491 a year.
Most pension plans require a person to work for a company for 10 years before he or she is vested. A bill sponsored by Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.) and included in the equity act would shorten the time to five years, reflecting the mobility of today's work force. The bill would also require minimum pension benefits above the Social Security benefits, eliminating a provision that works against women with lower incomes. The bill would require pension plans to cover part-time workers on a pro-rata basis and include employes who begin working for companies within five years of retirement. The provision reflects another trend in the work force -- namely, the growing number of older people who retire and then begin new careers.
Another portion of the equity act addresses the child-care needs of working parents. According to the caucus briefing paper, 23 million children require day care or after-school care: Federal subsidies provide slots for only 500,000 children. As a result of cuts and changes in Title XX of the Social Security Act in 1981, 25 states spent less for child care in 1984 than 1981, and 27 states served fewer children in 1984 than before.
Under the equity act, the authorization for Title XX would be raised from $2.7 billion to $3.42 billion, bringing it back to the level it would have been prior to the 1981 cuts. The bill also would provide $70 million for child-care training and $50 million in grants for states to enforce federal day-care regulations -- steps that could help reduce child abuse and neglect.
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Sala Burton (D-Calif.), would set up a grant program to provide care for the children of mothers with low incomes attending college, and pay them for part-time employment in child-care programs. This is a bill that encourages self-sufficiency rather than dependence on public assistance, as does a bill sponsored by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) that would fund child-care programs in public housing projects so mothers could work.
Other provisions of the equity act address tax reform. The "zero bracket amount" in taxes -- income that is not taxed -- is the same amount ($2,390) for a single head of household (most of whom are mothers) as for a single taxpayer with no dependents. A bill sponsored by Kennelly would raise the amount for a single head of household to the same level as a married couple filing jointly ($3,540).
Another tax proposal, sponsored by Rep. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), would give taxpayers caring for disabled children and adults a tax credit for respite care expenses.
Other portions of the equity act touch on Social Security, insurance and pay equity.
Progress in improving the economic circumstances of women has been slow, but in the past two sessions of Congress it has been steady, with solid bipartisan support. Cosponsors in the House are Snowe and Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.); in the Senate, they are Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.). The breadth of proposals in this year's package, the targeting of help to the most needy in their everyday lives, should be particularly encouraging to women and their families: it is proof that they have not been forgotten.