Time off to care for kids? Hope you don't need your pension

The British government reneged on an amendment that would have allowed mothers to make up for pension contributions they missed while caring for their children.

By Catherine Price

Published December 20, 2007 6:37PM (EST)

British women who took time off to care for their children -- and thus missed years of work that would have counted toward their eventual pensions -- received bad news yesterday: The British government reneged on its July offer to back an amendment to the pensions bill that would have "allowed women to make up shortfalls in their state pension entitlement by paying in extra cash" (and thus receive full pensions), reports the Daily Mail. And women -- not to mention the Tory Party -- are pissed.

This means that 8 million British women have lost the chance to supplement their pension contributions so that they can receive a full pension when they retire -- or, to put it a different way, of the 12 million women over 45 who have paid contributions, seven out of 10 aren't eligible for full pensions because of time -- and payments -- missed when they took time off to care for children, the Mail reports.

Now, I don't claim to be an expert on British pension policy, or the financial details behind this situation. And I also think it's unreasonable to expect the government to fully fund every citizen's retirement without help. (Under the proposed plan the women would have made makeup payments, but according to the Financial Times the pension minister claimed that the cost would still "be high.") Nonetheless, something about this seems wrong. And apparently even the government was surprised -- this was such a shocking reversal of the plan put forth in July that it caused "gasps of dismay" in the House of Lords, according to the Telegraph, and all parties agreed to reinstall the amendment to the bill and to try to push it through anyway. Stay tuned for how that goes.

The bigger issue here, obviously, is how we as a society value parenting. Perhaps part of the problem is the expression "take time off from work" -- in most other contexts, it refers to taking a break or going on vacation. (If it actually means caring for infants and raising the next generation of humankind, then for the time being at least, I'll stay in the office.) Being a parent isn't a break from work -- it is work -- and probably some of the most important work we can do in life. The problem with defining parenting as a job, though, is who pays for it -- there's no real corporate structure in place when it comes to childcare. Again, I think it's unreasonable to expect the government to pick up the tab for all its citizens. But this particular bill sounds like a compromise where women (and presumably eligible men as well) would be allowed to deposit lump sums of money to make up for the time they missed, and in return, the government would reward them with the pensions they would have received if they hadn't "taken time off" to raise their kids. Here's hoping the bill has better luck the next time around.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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