Saturday, October 3, 2009

The cost of being a gay couple... the New York Times tells just one part of the story

You know I'm going to respond to any article that says:

"Nearly all the extra costs that gay couples face would be erased if the federal government legalized same-sex marriage."

Well, that's what the article in today's New York Times concludes. It purports to be a study based on the differences between a married heterosexual couple and a same-sex couple (who, if married in their state, is still not married for federal law purposes).

So let's get the first obvious problem with this article out of the way by rephrasing the study's findings as follows:

Nearly all the extra costs that unmarried couples face would be erased if the federal government stopped privileging marriage over other relationships.

My formulation is no less accurate than the conclusion in the Times article. But if you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, and if you're an advocate for same-sex marriage every problem looks like it's caused by denial of access to marriage. I just don't see it that way.

Here's an example. The article points out that when an employer provides health insurance to a same-sex partner it is taxed, while spousal coverage is not. True. But suggesting that the problem here is that same-sex couples can't marry misses the larger point. Why should any employer-provided health benefits be taxed? Salt Lake City allows an employee to cover anyone s/he lives with in an interdependent relationship. Many employers cover both same-sex and unmarried different-sex partners. In all those situations, the benefit is taxed. Spousal coverage gets special treatment. It shouldn't. A solution that ended that special treatment would reduce the "high cost of being a gay couple" as much as allowing same-sex couples to marry, and would be a better policy choice because it would encourage employers to recognize the actual families of their employees -- married or not.

Meanwhile, the article does not entirely ignore the fact that marriage helps those straight families who look like the male breadwinner and stay-at-home mother model that drives both our tax and social security system. So it would mostly help those same-sex couples who also have one high and one low income earner. The authors acknowledge that for an equal earning couple their social security payments don't vary depending on whether or not they are married. What they fail to mention is that many observers believe the current set-up fails to reflect modern family life and should be reformed...for straight married couples. Taking the current system as a given misses the opportunity to highlight the views of those who think it unconscionable that a family in which one person has earned most of the money pays less into social security and gets more out of it than a couple who have greater parity. Here's an example of one paper by the Urban Institute. They actually have an entire project about making social security more equitable.

Then there's this problem. The article posits the hypothetical couple having a joint income of $140,000 a year. This perpetuates the myth of gay affluence, something roundly debunked by the careful research of the Williams Institute. And for poor same-sex couples, they are, like different-sex unmarried couples, sometimes better off not being married (the Earned Income Tax Credit is one example.) In fact, you'd never know it from this article that lawyers who specialize in elder law often advise their heterosexual couple clients not to marry. If one partner needs to spend down all assets to be eligible for medicaid nursing home care, the other can keep all of his or her assets if the couple isn't married. If they are married, they must spend down almost all of both of their assets.

But no partner in the hypothetical couples used as examples in the Times article needs nursing home care. Lucky them.

5 comments:

Bella said...

Thanks, Nancy -- I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the article. I mentioned it here:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-single/200910/the-high-price-being-single

--Bella

Linda said...

I hope you're writing a response for the NYT!

Linda

onely said...

I second Linda's idea--write back to the Times!
Christina

Josue said...

I like to talk about issues related to marriage, some time ago when I was in college studying psychology conducted a study called before marriage, where we found the main problems for which divorces happen ...

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