Nancy Polikoff

LA Gay & Lesbian Center and NGLTF lead misguided action about Social Security

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | February 16, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: LA Gay and Lesbian Center, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Rock for Equality, Social Security

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.

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So how do you think they can improve? What is the solution? What should they have done other than wrangling an invite to be embedded in the group writing the report?

"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."

There is your answer, Bil, or at least part of it.

I agree with Nancy --- this is an excellent opportunity for LGBT movement people to build coalitions with other groups. Getting changes in SS rules is a long and hard row to plow, and this coalition ought to be one in which our partners particularly appreciate our participation and input.

But I think the "Rock for Equality" effort might be a back porch noise-maker for the Prop 8 trial --- that, plus it is another hard-to-resist opportunity for GLBT orgs to re-play the professional victim anthem instead of promoting serious and well-thought-out public policy reform the way that Nancy has here.


What we want is parity with married heterosexual couples. If some hetero married couples get screwed, then we want (1) to get equally screwed and then (2) to team up with our fellow hetero victims to lobby Congress to fix the system.

Apparently you would reject parity for some couples because other couples might not benefit. That's as shortsighted and narrowminded as saying none of us should be allowed to marry because some of us reject the normative institution of marriage.

In an ideal world, social security would be marriage-independent, and all people -- married, single, straight or not -- would be treated equally. But this is America, and that ain't about to happen. For now, though, let's work for the possibly, including equivalent treatment for married same-sex couples by the Social Security Administration.

Thanks for putting it this way because it does, indeed, clarify the difference between us. I want LGBT advocates to be part of a coalition effort NOW to fix Social Security, especially since such an effort exists. I don't want parity in such a flawed system.

They need to NOW contact the groups that have been interested in fairness of social security and get involved in those conversations. They have to approach it NOT as "we want our single high earner couples treated like single high earner married heterosexuals" but rather we want a payment system that works well for all LGBT people. And there needs to be a full and complete conversation with as much input as possible from gay advocacy groups about what fair allocation of social security benefits should be. Right now the other groups are ignoring gay people, and our organizations are ignoring them. And, since I'm sure no one is cancelling Rock for Equality on my say-so, I'd like the website and the organizers to state up front that TODAY when both partners earn close to the same amount of money over their lifetimes they are not hurt when it comes to retirement or survivors benefits from having their relationship not recognized. I think gay people being asked to support this action need to know that only when a couple has had a high enough standard of living based on ONE primary earner is the couple harmed by not being treated as a heteresexual married couple.

How's that for starters?

Can the Task Force or any other LGBT organization do ANYTHING without being attacked in the blogosphere?

They're advocating for equal treatment with similarly situated same-sex couples. What should they do, argue for social security reform (because that's a system that's very likely to be reformed sometime soon /sarc) and fail to advocate for those in our community who are forced by the federal government to pay more and receive less in benefits than their heterosexual counterparts?

When a gay rights group establishes priorities that improves the material well being of only one part of the our community, I think it is legitimate to assess those priorities. When all gay people are denied a right or status available to all straight people, then on equality grounds alone there is reason for action. This expenditure of money and effort, however, materially benefits only those couples who, during their relationship, had one primary earner. Lower income couples are much less likely to be able to live on one primary income. The higher the income of one partner, coupled with a lower earning partner, the LESS the two of them will pay into Social Security compared to what they get out. If the race demographics of the LGBT community mirrors that of heterosexuals, Black same-sex couples will not benefit from this reform.

I believe it is appropriate to question such a use of limited advocacy resources.

You seem to think reforming the way Social Security deals with families is impossible. You are wrong. That's what the GAO report is about, as well as years of advocacy by groups who care about vulnerable populations but have never had a gay rights advocacy group at the table with them and have ignored our concerns. THAT is where the effort of gay right groups should go.

There are as many perspectives in the blog world as there are in the real world. Blogging just gave a bigger voice to more people - it didn't give people a hive mind. Some people are always going to disagree with a political action, sometimes legitimate and sometimes not. That's life. The folks at the Task Force wear big kid pants and they can handle it.

Thanks Nancy- I was not aware of these disparities- it was a very eye-opening read. Thank you.

lgbt activist | February 16, 2010 6:16 PM

OF COURSE it would be better if we reformed the whole social security system. Just like it'd be better if people didn't have to get married to ensure that their family of choice is protected. Just like it would be better to have a comprehensive federal civil rights bill protecting LGBT people rather than the very narrow ENDA. But seems to me like it's easier to fight for equality under the current system, i.e., fighting to ensure that differently-earning queer couples are treated the same as differently-earning straight couples, than it is to try to reform everything. Let's not blame these organizations for trying to do SOMETHING about one area of discrmination because they didn't tackle everything that's wrong with the bigger system. Go after those who aren't doing ANYTHING, not those who are trying to do SOMETHING.

But seems to me like it's easier to fight for equality under the current system, i.e., fighting to ensure that differently-earning queer couples are treated the same as differently-earning straight couples, than it is to try to reform everything.

Sitting at home and ordering a pizza's even easier.

Better reform takes more work. I'm surprised that most people here aren't all that concerned with agitating for the best system, but just want the same shit, no matter how shitty, as straight people have.

Who knows why. But somewhere along the line most of the movement stopped caring about improving LGBT people's lives and started caring about erasing the legal differences between straight and queer people. Nothing wrong with the latter, but it's not the whole picture nor does it make a very good rallying cry.

Nancy, I know you have been following this issue for quite a while, and I thank you for weighing in. But I am not clear where you want to go with these "conversations" that you advocate. Do you want Social Security to simply treat everyone as single? I doubt that reform will happen since so many millions of marrieds benefit from the pro-married status quo. Or are you looking for a means-based SS, where your retirement benefit would be unrelated to what your income was, but just pegged to some across the board formula, e.g. everyone gets 150 or 175 percent of poverty level? That might be a back-door way of "fixing" the SS problem without a tax increase or raising the retirement age. Personally, my math tells me that my partner of 28 years and I are losing out on $3,000 a year because we lack a marriage certificate. So, selfish though it may be, I say, rock on. And I thank the Task Force for focusing on a big money issue that HRC simply sweeps under the rug.

"The pension should go to a person who was financially dependent upon, or interdependent with, the deceased." (A quote from your Feb. 3 post @ bilerico.)

I am a 20+year partner of the person who has been our household primary income earner. If she proceeds me in death, as the SS rules apply today, I am going to live in poverty. How you can reason what you did earlier and yet now advocate against helping some because it does not fix everything at once for everyone is puzzling to me.