As a long-time champion of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, it pains me to have to criticize that organization, as well as the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, for its just-unveiled Rock for Equality action. The premise of the action is simple -- and misguided: that same-sex couples, who, even if they marry, cannot have their marriages recognized under federal law, are discriminated against in social security benefits. Leaders of the two groups make the following statements on the action's website:
Lorri L. Jean: "LGBT Americans are being treated unfairly by Social Security—it’s as simple as that. ...Why should a LGBT widow or widower have to give up the home they have shared for years with their partner when that partner dies? Preventing such tragedies is exactly what Social Security Survivor’s Benefits are for!"
Rea Carey: "It’s unthinkable that in America, countless LGBT seniors — widows, widowers, and other retirees — are being systematically short-changed by unfair Social Security policies. ...Social Security was created to protect all Americans in their later years. It is utterly un-American that this institution discriminates against LGBT citizens."
I think most people reading the description of the problem on this website would think, at a minimum, that Social Security gives all married (heterosexual) couples a benefit that it denies to LGBT couples (whether or not they are married in the state where they live). A friend of mine said this to me: "When [my partner] dies, I can't get her social security benefits," as though if she and her partner were recognized as married by Social Security (or if they were a married heterosexual couple), she would get a benefit she is otherwise deprived of. As though every surviving spouse "inherits" something from Social Security.
This is a hard issue to understand and to explain. I'm going to try. One type of married couple gets this kind of windfall under Social Security -- it's the type of family that Congress had in mind in 1939, when it created the system and only 15% of married women earned their own income. When one spouse has earned all or the vast majority of the couple's income, the non-earner or low-earner spouse gets a retirement benefit equal to half her spouse's, even if she never paid into Social Security; and if her spouse dies first, she will then receive the amount of money he was receiving. Example: If his lifetime earnings entitle him to $1,800/month in benefits, she will receive $900 while he is alive and $1,800 once he dies. (So the household has $2,700/mo. while he is alive and $1,800 when he dies).
When a same-sex couple resembles this couple's earning pattern, that couple is, indeed, disadvantaged by being considered unmarried, when the couple is actually married in a state that allows it.
But same-sex couples with two earners, whose lifetime earnings are pretty close to each other(I'm pretty sure my friend and her partner fall into this category), will gain nothing by being considered married. Instead, they will find themselves, like equal-earning heterosexual couples (including most African-American married couples), paying more into the system and getting less out. Let's say each partner is entitled to $1,350/mo. based on her own earnings. Sure, if they are married, each can qualify for a spousal benefit. But that benefit is instead of, not on top of, what each qualifies for on her own. So the spousal benefit is only $675/mo. instead of $1,350, which, of course, no one would choose. So that household also gets $2,700/mo. while both are alive. But when the first spouse dies, the survivor simply keeps her own benefit -- $1,350. The surviving spouse sees a 50% cut in benefits to the household, compared to the 33% cut experienced by the surviving stay-at-home spouse whose deceased spouse earned all the family's income.
So Lorri Jean's outrage about one partner losing his home when the other partner dies happens right now to married heterosexuals, given the 50% reduction in household income, as well as to the survivor of a same-sex couple. If Rock for Equality succeeds in getting social security for same-sex couples on the same basis now afforded different-sex married couples, the surviving partner will continue to suffer this dramatic decrease in income unless his partner's lifetime earnings greatly succeeded his own. This is an action calling for support from the entire LGBT community, when only couples who come close to replicating the one-primary-earner household will be helped should the action succeed. All of us in couples where both partners work full-time and contribute close to equally to the household are being asked to support an action that will not benefit us at all. Not at all.
Scholars and advocates unconnected to the gay rights movement have been pointing out for years how unfair this system is...to equal earning married couples and to single parents, whose lifetime earnings suffer because of their childcare responsibilities and who have no income-earning spouse confering a spousal benefit. Research by the Institute for Women's Policy Research and law professor Dorothy Brown demonstrates that black couples are disadvantaged by the current Social Security system.
I have urged gay rights groups to connect with those advocates who criticize the failure of Social Security to equally value current family structures. Instead, Rock for Equality suggests that the social security system in uniquely unfair to same-sex couples. It's an opportunity for coalition work missed...and for what? Or I should say for whom? For the segment of our community who can afford to have one partner work part-time, or be a stay-at-home parent, or make employment choices based on criteria other than maximizing income.
The Rock for Equality website has a graphic presenting the amount of lost social security income to a couple when one earns $95,000/yr and the other earns $45,000. Leaving aside just how much this household has, compared to average households, the graphic would look very different if each partner earned $70,000. Then the cost of the "discrimination" would be ... zero. (I'm not counting the $255 death benefit that every surviving spouse receives based on the marriage alone ; I'm pretty sure if the only loss to same-sex couples was $255, this issue would not would not form the basis of a major stand-alone campaign.)
And if one spouse earned $140,000 and the other earned nothing, another graphic could show that those two people pay far less into Social Security than the $70,000-each couple, and yet they get far more out in terms of social security payments. That's the windfall that goes to the couples social security was originally designed for. Every one of us subsidizes those couples.
The Rock for Equality website cites Williams Institute data that, on average, lack of access to spousal social security benefits costs same-sex couples $5700/yr. Even if that figure is an accurate average, this is one place where average doesn't tell the story. If one couple loses $11,400/yr and another couple loses nothing, the average loss is $5700/yr. But one couple isn't hurt at all, and, in fact, is subsidizing the other couple's benefits. The Task Force and the LA Center are not asking all LBGT couples to come out and support an action that will benefit half of us; their rhetoric suggests that all our couples are victims of this discrimination. This is not true.
It's past time for a conversation about the redistribution of income from single earners and dual earner couples to married couples with one primary earner. The Urban Institute has been pushing that conversation for many years. Now two gay rights groups want to enter a conversation about discrimination in social security, but only to ask that when same-sex couples have one primary income earner they, too, should be subsidized by the rest of us -- including all the same-sex couples with two equal-income earners.
I am well-known for my stance that marriage should not confer "special rights." That may make some who disagree with me inclined to discount my criticism of the Rock for Equality effort. So let me be clear. This action, if it succeeds, will result in some same-sex married couples getting an advantage at the expense of other same-sex married couples, who will not benefit at all.
Why is that a good use of movement resources?