SAGE: Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders
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May 2, 2011

LGBT Older Adults and Social Security

The Bilerico Project
By Michael Adams
Nearly every day, I am reminded of the many ways in which LGBT older people are more vulnerable than their heterosexual counterparts. They have faced historical prejudice that has disrupted their lives and hurt their opportunities to earn a living and save for retirement. A lifetime of employment discrimination means that LGBT older people as a group are poorer and less financially secure than the broader elder populations. It also means that LGBT elders are highly dependent on programs such as Social Security.

Social Security is the single most important financial safety net program for older people and makes the difference between poverty and a living wage retirement for a significant portion of older Americans. It was implemented in 1935 to help those who were either unable to work or find a job by helping to pay for basic costs of living. One of the specific populations targeted for support under the new Act were older people, as they were less likely to find employment as they aged, partly based on workplace discrimination that continues to this day.

But despite its intention to aid the country's most vulnerable, the Social Security Act's parameters have let many LGBT elders slip through the cracks. Despite paying into Social Security just like everybody else, LGBT older people are denied three of its key benefits: the spousal benefit, the survivor benefit and the death benefit.

The spousal benefit allows any person who once was, or is, married for at least ten years to receive the greater of the Social Security benefit that he or she has earned over a lifetime, or 50 percent of the benefit that his or her past or current spouse has earned. Even in states where same-sex couples can marry, the federal government does not recognize these relationships, and so these couples are ineligible for Social Security spousal benefits.

Same-sex couples are also ineligible for survivor benefits (where a surviving spouse can receive 100% of the deceased spouse's Social Security payment) and death benefits (a one-time payment to cover funeral expenses when a spouse passes away).

This discrimination can have a severe effect on the quality of life for the surviving partner. For example, according to Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults, a report by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) and SAGE, an LGBT 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.

But there is hope. As Social Security and other safety-net programs become more a part of the political conversation, there is an opening to shine a spotlight on historical inequities. Rather than resorting to baseless raids on Social Security in misguided efforts to address the country's financial challenges (perceived or real), policy-makers should be looking to ensure that the country's most vulnerable older people - including LGBT elders - are given a modicum of support and equity.

Among other things, this means recognizing same-sex couples and repealing DOMA. On a related front, states should heed recent advice from the federal government and protect same-sex couples from "spousal impoverishment" in Medicaid in the same way married heterosexual couples are protected.

With the population of LGBT older people doubling in the next 20 years (from 1.5 to 3 million), there is an urgent need to secure the basic financial protections that this population deserves. By strengthening the Social Security Act and the broader federal safety net for elders so that same-sex couples are treated equitably, we can take a step toward regaining the sense of hope, dignity, and faith originally ingrained in the act. The time to do so is now.

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