Activists rallied on Monday in Washington in support of a bill which would equalize social security benefits for LGBT people.
The benefits are: spousal retirement benefits after one spouse retires; disability benefits if one spouse becomes disabled; survivor’s benefits, which allow surviving spouses to claim either their own Social Security benefit or an amount equal to the compensation that would have been afforded to their deceased spouse; and the death benefit, which provides for burial expenses.
A bill introduced by Representative Linda Sánchez would stop the Social Security Administration denying same-sex couples these benefits. Sánchez says that the inequality means that, on average, gay male couples receive 18% less in Social Security benefits than straight couples, and lesbian couples receive 31% less (because women statistically earn less money).
Michael Adams, executive director of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) told the Washington Blade that the benefits denial hits older lesbians and gays hardest because most seniors rely on Social Security for at least half of their retirement income.
Older gays and lesbians in couples are also more likely to need Social Security even more because they’re more likely to be living in poverty than opposite-sex couples. Plus, older gays and lesbians are more likely to be single, and one-third of single elders rely on Social Security for their entire retirement income.
SAGE says that a same-sex 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.
One of the talking points of opponents of LGBT rights is that gay people are actually a well-off, relatively privileged minority, and therefore they don’t need ‘special’ rights. This idea of LGBT people being well-off is reinforced by cultural images and often by businesses which have a stake in selling advertising based on the idea of LGBT being better off, the so-called ‘pink market.’ Some people may also assume that if LGBT people are less likely to be raising children, then they must have more money to spend.
There is actually little sound research. Many numbers out there are based on samples of, for examples, readers of magazines, which aren’t representative samples.
Joe Clark has conducted a literature review of 70 papers he could find. What the econometric research tells us about ‘gay money,’ he found, is that gay men earn less than straight men, while lesbians earn more because they are less likely to have children and more likely to be in better paid ‘gendered male’ jobs.
But the research, he found, is limited and mostly on gays and lesbians in couples.
In Washington, Sánchez told activists that her bill was about economic inequality. “Same-sex couples pay into Social Security — they should receive the full benefits they have earned,” she said. “The gay and lesbian population will not be told by their government that they are second-class citizens.”
“Social Security is based on a simple formula,” Sánchez says, “work hard, pay into it with each paycheck, and be able to retire with dignity. This must apply to all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is time the Social Security Administration ends a misguided policy that discriminates against same-sex couples.”
The legislation, which was previously introduced in 2010, has 95 co-sponsors: all Democrats. Although it is going nowhere in the current House, Sánchez said she’s hopeful it will receive a hearing in the House Ways & Means Committee, which will have jurisdiction over the bill.
Despite the impossibility of legislative progress on equality at the moment, the White House is looking at ways in which the administration could help older LGBT people, with a conference taking place May 7.
Picture of Linda Chavez at Washington rally courtesy Rock for Equality