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WE CAN'T QUARREL with raising the amount of money that retired workers may earn without losing any of their Social Security benefits. On the contrary, it'sa productive idea. But efforts to accomplish this result should not, as they are now unfortunately doing, foul the chances of a new federal child-care law.

Those on Social Security can earn unlimited outside income, with no loss of benefits, if they are 70 years old or older.

But those who are retired and younger do lose out.

Recipients 65 to 69, for example, can earn $9,360 without suffering reduced benefits. But earning more than that costs them $1 in lost benefits for every $3 earned. The Senate attached to the child-care bill a provision, which the House now wants accepted, raising the allowable earnings $1,200 (13 percent) to $10,560. The provision would also cut the penalty for earnings above that to a loss of $1 for each $4 earned.

On the merits, this looks reasonable.

Wealthy retirees can keep unlimited unearned income (stock dividends, interest, rent and the like) without losing Social Security benefits. Why shouldn't less affluent retirees with willing labor to sell be permitted to use their talents in part-time jobs, up to roughly $10,000, without a penalty? This rewards work, for those willing and able to perform it. But it still preserves legal distinctions between retired and unretired, and it does not penalize those who don't wish to return to the workplace.

Raising the limit can ease tight finances squeezing healthy retirees living on the margin. It can ease the transition for others from full-time jobs to full retirement.

So the idea is fine. But senior citizen earning rules remain quite unrelated to child care. They must not become embroiled in the differences over major new child-care legislation under negotiation by delegates from the House and Senate. Least of all should differences over senior citizen earnings hurt progress on child care, as they appear to be doing now.

Unpenalized earnings for working senior citizens are one issue. Child care is another. Treat them separately, not together.

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