By Crystal Proxmire
Social Security is the safety net that helps the elderly, the disabled and children of parents facing these struggles remain protected against the devastation of poverty. But for thousands of LGBT Americans, the system simply does not work.
A report out this spring by the Human Rights Campaign and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation called Living Outside the Safety Net: LGBT Families and Social Security details the actual cost of the disparity.
Social Security began in 1935 “to create a social insurance program that would guarantee that workers would have a source of income after they retired,” and it has expanded to cover workers’ spouses and children, as well as people who can no longer work because of disability. It does not, however, recognize families of same-sex couples. In fact, the Federal Defense of Marriage Act specifically prevents these relationships from being recognized for Social Security family and spousal purposes, even in states where same gender marriage is allowed.
“This is a matter of simple fairness. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are vital members of the American workforce and contribute their equal share to the Social Security System with every paycheck. Now is the time to ensure equal access to benefits,” the report states.
According to the Williams Institute, LGBT people live in 99.3 percent of all U.S. counties, work in every sector of the economy, and are raising at least 250,000 children. There are 50,000 legally married same gender couples in the U.S., yet their spouses get none of the support the way a heterosexual spouse would.
In addition to the 50,000 legally recognized couples, there are at least half a million couples who are not legally married, yet live together as a household. “The Social Security system recognizes that the death of a spouse is a financial as well as emotional loss for a family,” the report states. “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 decedent’s Social Security record when he or she reaches retirement age or at any time if he or she is disabled or is raising the worker’s child. On average, a retirement-age surviving spouse receives $1,184 monthly. For many survivors and their children, Social Security benefits ensure that they can remain in a family home. Same-sex surviving spouses are denied this option, potentially reducing the household income substantially, especially if the surviving spouse was not the primary breadwinner.”
According to the report, the average monthly retirement benefit for a worker who retired at full retirement age is around $1,350. In cases where one person made the bulk of the earnings, the non-married partner would not be eligible for their partner’s benefits, and on average lost $675 monthly compared to their married heterosexual counterparts.
When children are involved the situation gets more complex. “Many same-sex couples use adoption to form their families. When one parent is the biological parent, or when joint adoption is not permitted under state law, second-parent adoption is the only option that allows a same-sex partner to leally adopt his or her biological or adoptive chile while leaving the rights of the ‘first parent’ intact,” the study stated. Only 18 states allow second parent adoption, and “in the absence of fair adoption laws, thousands of same-sex parents across the country remain legal strangers to the children they are raising.”
A child becomes eligible for Social Secutiry benefits when a parent becomes disabled, retires or passes away. Many children with disabilities are also eligible based on their parent’s work history. But this is only true for “legal” parents.
Nationwide about 4.4 million children receive approximately $2.4 billion each month in benefits based on when a working parent retires, dies or becomes disabled. The average amount a child receives upon death of a parent is $785 a month, or $330 a month if the parent becomes disabled. A child with no legal relationship to a parent that retires, dies or becomes disabled is $0, even if that parent is the primary breadwinner of the family.
On average if a parent leaves the workplace or passes away, the loss of family income would be an average of $4,044 annually, each year until the child turns 18.
HRC and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation came up with three recommendations to fix the Social Security Act. The first is to expand access to spousal benefits. The second is to expand access to child benefits. And the third is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.