Among the big losers if George Bush’s proposed privatization of Social Security were to be approved would be gay and lesbian retirees.
As the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force pointed out in a press conference Tuesday, because the federal government and Social Security Administration don’t recognize partnerships of gays and lesbians, survivors in such couples do not get any of a partner’s benefits the way a surviving spouse would in a heterosexual marriage.
This could leave millions of elderly homosexual people with minimal or perhaps with no retirement benefits, if they were the low-income earner in a gay household.
The taskforce, which released a study called “Selling Us Short: How Social Security Privatization Will Affect Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans,” (http://www.TheTaskForce.org/) said that the problem is compounded because gays and lesbians already tend to have more difficulty obtaining elderly services.
Mandy Hu, author of the task force’s study, said that even though the current Social Security System discriminates against gays and lesbians by refusing to recognize their partnerships and families, “it remains a crucial and consistent element of support.”
Sean Cahill, director of the tax force policy institute, also noted that in many ways tax and retirement laws work against gays and lesbians. For example, when a spouse with a 401K retirement plan dies, her or his spouse receives the fund with no tax penalty, but in a gay or lesbian couple’s case, the surviving partner must pay a 20 percent tax for the benefits of dead partner’s plan. At the same time, most private pension plans don’t even allow a same-sex partner to be a named beneficiary.
The big loss for same sex couples, according to Hu, is partner and survivor benefits. In the case of a typical married couple where one spouse was earning $45,000 a year and the other just $7500, the combined Social Security benefits on retirement would be a monthly $1500 and $750, or a total of $2250. If that same couple were gay, however, since their union would not be recognized by the SSA, their combined monthly benefit would be just $1500 plus $300, or $1800. The difference is a $450 “spousal benefit” that the lower-earning spouse is entitled to under Social Security rules-an amount that could spell the difference between survival and desperation.
The disparity in survivor benefits is even worse. Looking at same two couples mentioned above, one heterosexual married pair and one same-sex pair, if the major bread-winner in a married couple died, the surviving spouse would then receive a survivor benefit equal to that spouse’s original Social Security benefit, or $1500 a month, plus the survivor’s own benefit amount of $300, for a total of $1800 a month. The survivor from a same-sex couple, however, would only get the $300 check,
Disability too, favors the married couple. Should the major wage earner become disabled in the sample family cited by Hu, the couple would receive a disability benefit of $1350 a month, plus another $675 for the spouse, for a total disability payment of $2025. The same-sex household in the same situation would only get the $1350 payment.
The Republican gay and lesbian organization, Log Cabin Republicans, came in for some criticism for endorsing the so-called Ryan-Sununu Social Security privatization plan, a variant of Bush’s still vague proposal. Calling the Log Cabin argument that a privatized retirement system would benefit same-sex couples by allowing them to pass on their benefits to partners “ultimately specious,” the task force report said, “privatization will harm LGBT Americans for the same reasons it will harm all Americans: it will introduce greater risks-and unsustainable costs with uncertain benefits-to the system. ”
Hu wrote that the ability to pass on a plan’s collected assets to a surviving partner had to be weighed against the reality that “privatization schemes will leave many with no such savings to pass on.” Saying that “privatization will impoverish more people than it will accidentally benefit,” she added, “The LGBT community has no interest in gaining rights at the cost of rights for other people.”
There could be a grand irony in all this. With the Bush administration pushing ahead with its increasingly unpopular campaign to dismantle Social Security by privatizing it, Americans are paying closer attention to how it works. While gays and lesbians may not succeed in convincing Congress to eliminate the benefits bias against them, married couples with two wage earners may start to realize how badly they are hurt by a system that penalizes the lower wage-earner–a problem that can be readily solved by simply dissolving their marriage and living out their senior years in sin.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org