‘You matter. We matter. Social Security matters.’

By Laurie Young, Ph.D., Interim Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Laurie Young moderates a recent congressional briefing on LGBT aging.

On June 22, I had the privilege of attending the National Association of Social Insurance’s (NASI) forum, Social Security at 75: The Legacy of the Vision. NASI is the country’s foremost nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting the value of social insurance and its contribution to economic security and a vibrant economy. This group of experts was in the forefront of fighting to keep Social Security intact when President George W. Bush’s No. 1 goal after re-election in 2004 was to privatize Social Security.

The meeting was filled with luminaries in Social Security policy and economics. John Rother from AARP,  Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Nancy Altman the co-director of Social Security Works, David Wessel who covers the economy for the Wall Street Journal, keynote speaker Peter Orzag, Director of OMB, and my personal favorite, Ashley Carson, executive director of the Older Women’s League.

Only a handful of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates were present for this meeting. In fact, there was only me. It’s not a surprise — Social Security is a complicated issue, and it often feels as if you need a post-graduate degree in economics to understand how it works. But you don’t. What you need to understand is this: LGBT Americans are underemployed or live on the brink of poverty, and for many of us, especially those of us who are disabled or over 65, Social Security is the only thing keeping us going.

We don’t like to think about getting older, but it’s happening — not only to us as individuals, but to our country. The baby boomers are hitting retirement age — and this matters. Without Social Security, the rate of poverty among older adults would jump from just under 10% to over 50%. Nearly 90% of all elder households rely at least partially on this social insurance program, and nearly a third rely entirely on it. If we don’t keep social security intact, our country faces an enormous economic crisis — and it will hit the LGBT community hard. Consider these facts:

  • The Williams Institute cites 12 studies showing a significant wage gap between homosexual and heterosexual men ranging anywhere from 10-32% lower wages for the same jobs.
  • The Williams Institute also notes that 22% of lesbian couples with children are classified “low income” households.
  • The National Black Justice Coalition reported in 2004 that black same-sex couples have a lower median income than black heterosexual couples by as much as $10,000 a year.
  • In California, the Transgender Law Center reports that one in four transgender people live below poverty, despite holding down jobs at a higher rate than their counterparts.
  • The AIDS Community Research Initiative of America found that more than 50% of older adults with HIV/AIDS rely on Social Security disability as a primary source of income.
  • The MetLife study, Still Out, Still Aging, reports that nearly 50% of our community expects to be working at least to age 70 because we can’t afford to retire.

We are workers and families who have very little to set aside for our future. Social Security will be the most important economic safety net for our community when we are no longer able to work.

While we are still unable to access those benefits to the same level as our heterosexual counterparts, the impact on same-sex couples is enormous. In opposite-sex married couples, the lower-wage earner can receive a “spousal benefit” that reflects the benefits her/his spouse has earned over a lifetime. The lack of spousal benefits can cost an LGBT retired worker thousands of dollars a year in lost benefits. Even though opposite-sex and same-sex couples are equally reliant on social security in their retirement years, lesbian couples receive an average of 31.5% less in Social Security, and same-sex couples receive 17.8% less — the difference between survival and severe poverty.

So imagine my surprised joy when I heard these very issues raised at this week’s NASI forum. And they were raised by one of the heavy hitters in the Social Security movement — Nancy Altman. In addition to authoring the book The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble, Nancy is the board chair of the Pension Rights Center; board member of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare; co-founder of the National Association of Social Insurance; and co-director of Social Security Works. Nancy knows the ins and outs of Social Security and its value to the American people. And here she was, talking bluntly about the inequity of the Social Security system as it impacts same-sex couples.

Nancy called for Social Security benefits for same-sex couples. She called for the repeal of DOMA and called for basic fairness in Social Security for same-sex couples. This is history, folks. This is the first non-LGBT national leader calling for fairness in Social Security and the recognition of our relationships. Several members of Congress are now considering ways to make this happen.

As President Obama’s commission gets prepared to discuss ways to deal with the deficit and fiscal restraint, now is the time for us to build on this momentum. Now is the time to contact your congressional members and senators and insist that they not try to balance the budget on the backs of Social Security future recipients. Now is the time to protect the most successful anti-poverty insurance program for seniors, the disabled and children. Do not buy into the lies and scare tactics coming out of the commission. Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have at lyoung@thetaskforce.org. The Task Force has been the leader in the LGBT movement for more than 10 years in our efforts to protect Social Security from threats of privatization.

You matter. We matter. Social Security matters.

This commentary is cross-posted to Daily Kos.