The LA Center and the Task Force are mobilizing the gay community to "Rock for Equality." The equality in this instance is access to Social Security spousal and survivors benefits available to heterosexual married couples.
But there's an enormous problem with this action; its success would help only one subset of same-sex couples, those in which one partner earns most of the income. All the other same-sex couples would continue to face the discrimination that equal earning heterosexual couples now face. They put more into the system and get less out of it than couples who fit the one breadwinner model of 1939, the year spousal benefits were added to Social Security.
Yet, to read the rhetoric on the Rock for Equality website, one would think all same-sex couples suffer compared to different-sex married couples or that all different-sex married couples have a safety net that we don't get. But it's not so.
You can read my longer post explaining how spousal and survivors benefits work. It's complex. This is not an issue like immigration equality. When it comes to sponsoring a spouse for immigration, that's something available to every person who marries a different-sex partner and denied to every person who marries a same-sex partner.
Social Security is different. If you and your partner earn roughly equal income, you are not discriminated against in retirement or survivors benefits (it's true you don't get a $255 one-time death benefit when your partner dies, but the Center and the Task Force are not urging a massive mobilization over $255). Your benefits over both of your lifetimes would not increase if the government recognized you as married. Even worse, you - and all the rest of us, such as all single people - are subsidizing the traditional gendered model of a couple with one primary wage earner. Those couples pay less into the system over their lifetimes and get more out than any of the rest of us.
I support immigration equality even though I don't have a foreign national partner, because I want binational same-sex couples to be able to live together in the United States. But to support Rock for Equality I would have to say that I want same-sex couples in which one partner has earned most of the income to get more out of Social Security than same-sex couples where the partners have similar incomes. And I don't want that.
To illustrate simply, I would have to say that I want a couple in which one partner has lifetime earnings based on $75,000/yr and the other has lifetime earnings based on $25,000/yr to get more Social Security than a couple in which each partner has lifetime earnings based on $50,000/yr. The first couple hasn't paid more into Social Security; they're just getting more out because they are closer to the traditional gendered model. And because they haven't paid more in, we -- all of us -- are subsidizing their more generous benefits.
Here's a personal note. I have just the family Social Security was designed to benefit. My lifetime earnings are so much higher than my partner's that over the course of our retirement we will probably get close to $10,000/yr less than we would if we were a heterosexual married couple. And if I die first, my partner will get over $20,000/yr less than she would if I were her husband. But let me ask you this. If you are single, or coupled with a person who earns about the same amount of money you do, do you want the amount you pay into social security to subsidize my family? You won't get more if the "Rock for Equality" action succeeds, but my family will, and it will come out of your pocket, not mine.
The Urban Institute has documented the failure of Social Security to keep up with the changes in family structure, and they have urged reforms. Scholars have analyzed the racial dynamics of our current system; because African-American married couples are more likely to be close to equal earners, they pay more in and get less out than white married couples. If the LA Center and the Task Force wanted to work on ending discrimination in Social Security, they should have approached those already looking at the many types of families disadvantaged in the current system and worked on a real coalition effort.
The way Social Security treats families calls out for reform, but Rock for Equality is taking the wrong approach. Just last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study entitled, Social Security: Options to Protect Benefits for Vulnerable Groups When Addressing Program Solvency. The report include several references to the system's bias in favor of single-earner couples. It does not mention gay men and lesbians at all, as singles or as couples.
It's too late for this report, of course, but if one of our national gay rights organizations had been embedded in work on the problems with Social Security - including the problems with how it treats families - this report might have reflected the needs of all LGBT people, including the most economically vulnerable ones. Instead we've got an action coming up that will benefit only those among us with low incomes who have a high income earning partner.
I hope we don't miss the next chance to address the needs of all LGBT people who rely on Social Security.