LGBTs Are Secondary Citizens In The Eyes of Social Security – Part 1

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Most people seem to have a very limited understanding of how DOMA directly as well as indirectly affects the LGBT community. Surprisingly even many gays limit their disdain of DOMA to the obvious fact that their marriage is not recognized federally.

Delving deeper, over 1300 separate rights and benefits are taken away from gay couples as a result of a patently discriminatory law. As time passes and society changes disdaining such a heinous law is utterly easy, yet more clearly DOMA has probably served as the critical stepping stone in moving American society away from wholesale discount of gays to an empathic realization that we are persons also. Harvey Milk told us to come out as our most powerful political tool. He was right and we have.

Social Security was enacted by Congress to create a safety net for workers after they retired. Over the 75 years since its inception Social Security has become arguably the most popular federal government program. Particularly because Americans consider it an insurance program for which they have paid premiums for a lifetime, not a federal benefit. According to the Social Security Administration 46 percent of unmarried beneficiaries get 90 percent of their income from Social Security.

Without Social Security over half of all older Americans would fall into poverty. Social Security does exactly what it was designed to do.

Congress has adjusted Social Security to cover spouses, children, and other family members and now covers millions of American workers originally excluded; its flexibility lending to its success. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation jointly authored a report, calling on Congress to add protections for the spouses, children, and family members of the LGBT community.

Though a majority of private business and Fortune 500 companies have eliminated discrimination based on sexual orientation and have extended healthcare benefits as well as non-healthcare retirement benefits and other survivor benefits to domestic partners, Social Security has not.

Social Security must be updated in order to keep pace with progress. LGBT people are denied benefits that are available to heterosexual couples. DOMA prevents these LGBT relationships from being recognized for Social Security. As a result, same-sex couples continue to be excluded from all but the most basic Social Security benefits.

The exclusion of same-sex spouses and domestic partners from Social Security benefits has a long-term, life changing economic impact on couples and families across the country. More than 140,000 same-sex couples have formalized their relationships under state law; among these are 50,000 gay couples who are legally married.

Social Security spousal benefits provide much needed financial support for families when a worker retires, is disabled or dies and these benefits are also available for divorced spouses if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. There is no limit to the number of former spouses that can be eligible for benefits based on one worker’s Social Security history.

Social Security recognizes that the death of a spouse is a financial as well as emotional loss for a family. Social Security benefits are designed to supplement families’ incomes and to provide surviving spouses with some level of financial stability. A surviving spouse is eligible to receive benefits on the deceased spouse’s Social Security record when they reach retirement age, become disabled or are raising the deceased spouse’s child. This benefit is not available to same-sex couples.

A surviving spouse who is retirement age is often entitled to 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit. In order to maximize benefits, a surviving spouse with his or her own work history may choose to receive a benefit based on either his or her own history or that of his or her deceased spouse. Same-sex surviving spouses are denied this option, with the potential of reducing the household income substantially if the surviving spouse was not the primary breadwinner.

Disability benefits are available through Social Security or through supplemental security income, SSI. Social Security estimates that 30% of all workers will become disabled before reaching age 62. This often sudden decrease in household income can be devastating for a family. A same-sex spouse of a deceased or disabled worker is not legally recognized and is not eligible to receive any of these benefits.

Recognizing the financial burden of burial and final illness, the Social Security system awards a one-time payment of $255 to partially offset costs. This payment can be made only to a surviving spouse. LGBT families who go unrecognized by Social Security are denied this benefit.

Social Security was designed to protect against poverty and hardship when families are faced with retirement, disability, or death of a spouse or parent. However, the system has failed to keep up with the changing American family. At a time when more and more states are formally recognizing same-sex partnerships, the current system fails to provide LGBT families and couples with the protection they need and deserve. Congress must take steps to address these inequalities by ensuring that lawful marriages between same-sex couples are recognized by the federal government, and that LGBT families are equally supported by vital Social Security safeguards.

Repealing DOMA, or having it declared unconstitutional by SCOTUS would be a good first step toward ensuring that all couples have equal access to Social Security. Ric Reily


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