Michael Adams

LGBT Older Adults and Social Security

Filed By Michael Adams | May 02, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: LGBT, older adults, retirement, seniors, social security

Nearly every day, I am reminded of the many ways in which LGBT older people are more vulnerable than their heterosexual counterparts. social-security.jpgThey have faced historical prejudice that has disrupted their lives and hurt their opportunities to earn a living and save for retirement. A lifetime of employment discrimination means that LGBT older people as a group are poorer and less financially secure than the broader elder populations. It also means that LGBT elders are highly dependent on programs such as Social Security.

Social Security is the single most important financial safety net program for older people and makes the difference between poverty and a living wage retirement for a significant portion of older Americans. It was implemented in 1935 to help those who were either unable to work or find a job by helping to pay for basic costs of living. One of the specific populations targeted for support under the new Act were older people, as they were less likely to find employment as they aged, partly based on workplace discrimination that continues to this day.

But despite its intention to aid the country's most vulnerable, the Social Security Act's parameters have let many LGBT elders slip through the cracks. Despite paying into Social Security just like everybody else, LGBT older people are denied three of its key benefits: the spousal benefit, the survivor benefit and the death benefit.

The spousal benefit allows any person who once was, or is, married for at least ten years to receive the greater of the Social Security benefit that he or she has earned over a lifetime, or 50 percent of the benefit that his or her past or current spouse has earned. Even in states where same-sex couples can marry, the federal government does not recognize these relationships, and so these couples are ineligible for Social Security spousal benefits.

Same-sex couples are also ineligible for survivor benefits (where a surviving spouse can receive 100% of the deceased spouse's Social Security payment) and death benefits (a one-time payment to cover funeral expenses when a spouse passes away).

This discrimination can have a severe effect on the quality of life for the surviving partner. For example, according to Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults, a report by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) and SAGE, an LGBT partner's average loss under the denial of the survivor benefit can cost up to $28,152 per year. This can mean the difference between poverty or a sustainable living income.

But there is hope. As Social Security and other safety-net programs become more a part of the political conversation, there is an opening to shine a spotlight on historical inequities. Rather than resorting to baseless raids on Social Security in misguided efforts to address the country's financial challenges (perceived or real), policy-makers should be looking to ensure that the country's most vulnerable older people - including LGBT elders - are given a modicum of support and equity.

Among other things, this means recognizing same-sex couples and repealing DOMA. On a related front, states should heed recent advice from the federal government and protect same-sex couples from "spousal impoverishment" in Medicaid in the same way married heterosexual couples are protected.

With the population of LGBT older people doubling in the next 20 years (from 1.5 to 3 million), there is an urgent need to secure the basic financial protections that this population deserves. By strengthening the Social Security Act and the broader federal safety net for elders so that same-sex couples are treated equitably, we can take a step toward regaining the sense of hope, dignity, and faith originally ingrained in the act. The time to do so is now.

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laurieyoung | May 2, 2011 11:49 AM

Great article, Michael. The more information we can share with our community about the impact of the realities of our lives on our aging is critical. The need to protect Social Security from benefit cuts, and the need to secure equality in benefits for same-sex couples will go far to aid the economic security of our elders. Thank you for all the great work SAGE is doing on behalf of LGBT older adults.

A very good article. Interestingly, I just read an article about the Senate six, with their supposed Bi-partisan plan to reduce the deficit( real or perceived), and in their plan they suggest dismantling social security, and all of the safety nets, which elderly LGB....t rely on, and which is pretty much inadequate as it is! I wrote to the White house about this last evening! That, the majority of these uber wealthy politicians are balancing the economy on the backs of it's most vulnerable citizens. This in my opinion is un-conscionable. As it stands, My own ss as an example, I (we) have not had a cost of living increase in three years now. This is especially grievous in that the poverty level for a single person is considered to be $ 25,000.00. per year. This is a figure that was put into place, and has been kept for more than ten years now, without any adjustments. Now consider that the monthly benefit that I receive based on this figure, is quite less than even half of that, and that without any cost of living increases, for these past years, and the proposal to completely cut any cost of living increases in the future for those of us already receiving benefits, well, we pretty much don't stand much of chance at any kind of viable meaningful life, with any of the accouterments, that most in the mainstream just take for granted! Good God, I dislike this government!

I agree on policy, but I doubt that the politics will go down like that. The big conversation in Washington is how to cut SS, not how to increase benefits.

Ted Hayes Ted Hayes | May 3, 2011 8:22 AM

I am 80 years old. My partner was older. We were both on Social Security and pensions from our workplaces. Since we were not permitted to marry with federal recognition of our relationship, when he died the household income from the aforementioned sources was cut in half. However, household expenses were not -- in fact, remaining relatively the same. That would not have occurred for a married heterosexual couple. How can those in power not see the inequities here?

This is so very important for our community. Thanks, Michael, for all the hard work you're putting into it.

Jay Kallio | May 3, 2011 3:03 PM

Just as LGBT youth are very vulnerable when we are thrown out of our homes by our biological families, there is a second period of extreme vulnerability once we get old, and are deprived of the benefits, recognition of our relationships, and economic resources that heterosexual couples enjoy. As elders who have been discriminated against for our entire lives, the cumulative toll on our economic stability becomes critical once we are no longer able to work, and must subsist on whatever remains in terms of resources (if any) and Social Security. Too many of us become homeless, cannot afford urgently needed medications, or food.

Having been one of the homeless LGBT youth 40 years ago, and never having had the opportunities afforded by education, and then later having been denied the benefits of marriage with my partner, including the health insurance that could have saved her life, and prevented me from becoming disabled, the unequal and unjust treatment of LGBT people across our entire lifetime results in great hardship and early mortality for us. The stabilizing economic effects of anti discrimination law and marriage equality would have made a significant difference in our lives, which is why I fight for these laws today.

The wealthy and advantaged do not need laws on the books to obtain needed care, physical safety, and to be treated with respect. They can buy those basic requirements for life. The poor and disadvantaged are the ones who need equal protection under the law, marriage equality, and employment and housing anti discrimination protections. These rights can make the difference between a healthy life of opportunity and choice, or the disempowerment and suffering of poverty and injustice for us.

That is why Marriage, DADT, and many other legislative priorities are most important for those of us who have the least. We cannot afford the losses from all the injustices those bills would remedy. We, the very poor, are the ones who need those protections and rights the most.