Revisiting the New Jersey Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling from yesterday, I find myself returning to a few key phrases from the ruling, particularly those that deal with the what the decision referred to as “the economic and financial inequities that are borne by same-sex domestic partners are also borne by their children,” because it’s one that I don’t think gets a lot of consideration when people start talking about same-sex marriage.
Most of the economic and financial issues are things that married heterosexuals don’t have to talk about, or even think about much, because it’s already given. But same-sex couples do have to talk about it, have to negotiate how to get just a few, can’t get most of those benefits, and have to pay more for the few we do get. And in many ways, same-sex couples assume many of the “burdens and obligations” of marriage referred to in the New Jersey decision are actually subsidizing for married heterosexuals the same benefits that are denied to us.
It almost makes marriage seem more like “welfare for heterosexuals” supported by the rest of us; a stipend, if you will, for being “straight.” That’s the part that doesn’t get talked about.
It’s one that either doesn’t get brought up, maybe because people don’t particularly like talking about money, or opponents of marriage equality dismiss support for marriage equality by saying “it’s all about money.”
Well, no. And yes. Anybody with a family (and I count couples who don’t have kids as families too) knows that it takes money to keep a family afloat, especially in times of crisis — like during illness, or in the event of a family members death. Health care, in those cases, takes money. Bereavement leave in the event of a spouses death, or family leave in the event of an illness are about money in as much as they assure that the surviving partner’s job and income will be there to return to. It takes money, sometimes in the form of a partner’s inherited pension and Social Security benefits, to keep a family functioning after the death of a partner; sometimes even to keep a roof over the family’s heads.
I haven’t seen it yet, but one of the comments on last week’s QueerlyKos round-up mentioned an television spot running in Colorado, produced by a group supporting the anti-gay marriage amendment, that features a same-sex couple sitting down with a lawyer. The couple rattles off the protections they want, and the lawyer responds to each with “we can do that.”
Having not seen the ad, I can only guess what specific protections are addressed, but there are only a few of which I think anyone could confidently say “we can do that.” But first, there’s the matter of the couple sitting in front of a lawyer having this conversation in the first place. Were I producing an “answer” ad to this one, I might include a graphic of the kind of running meter you’d see in a taxi cab, but in this case adding up the lawyers fees the same-sex couple is paying. Then in a split screen I’d ad a video of a heterosexual couple merely saying “I do” in front of a justice o’ the peace, thus deducting the cost of the wedding gown, photographer, caterer, reception hall, etc. At the end, you can compare the two couples’ “bills,” and decide who got more for their money.
There are a host of financial issues that effect same-sex couples differently, and create the “economic and financial inequities” mentioned in the ruling. I listed them before when I asked what rights same-sex couples should have, and here they are again in a nutshell.
- Inheritance rights – Same-sex couples have no automatic rights to inheritance in the absence of a will.
- Family leave – Same-sex couples have no legally protected right to unpaid leave to care for an ill spouse.
- Pensions – Most pension plans only pay survivor benefits to a legal spouse. Same-sex partners get no pension support for surviving partners.
- Nursing homes – Same-sex couples have no legal right to live together in a nursing home and spend their final years together.
- Home protection – The laws that protect married couples from being forced to sell their homes to cover high nursing home bills don’t apply to same-sex couples. A same-sex partner can be forced to sell, and forced out of the home to satisfy nursing home bills if he/she lives in the home but does not own it.
- Retirement savings – Married people can roll over a deceased spouses 401(k) into an IRA without paying taxes. Same-sex partners must withdraw everything, pay income taxes on it, and lose the tax deferral benefits.
- Taxes – Marries spouses may inherit unlimited property from a deceased spouse, tax free. Same-sex partners pay taxes on any amount over set state and federal limits.
- Social Security benefits – Unless you’re married, you get no Social Security from a dead spouse. If you have kids, they will get it and you may be custodian of it until they’re adults.
Now, most of these are issues that no state court or legislature can address, or at least fully address, because they involve federal law. But the argument against many of these benefits for same-sex couples is that many of them can be obtained through the creation of legal documents (i.e. a will, though heterosexual spouses are guaranteed to inherit some percentage of a deceased spouses estate even in the absence of a will.) or through other processes that usually require same sex couples to shell out more money for what married heterosexuals get for free or at significantly less cost. For example, one same-sex partner can purchase health insurance for his/her spouse via an employer’s health plan or another, but the heterosexual in the next cubicle will probably get to add his spouse at little or no additional cost, and the cost of that benefit will be made up in part by the queer in the adjoining cubicle.
When I mentioned earlier that Gerry Studds’ partner cannot inherit Studds’ congressional pension it was mentioned that an additional purchase could have taken care of the problem.
Studds’ pension largely comes from the General Fund.
Studds paid in 1.8 percent, the other 99.2 percent comes from the General Fund.
As a single man, he probably chose an individual plan.
He could have purchased an insurable interest annuity for a close relative or for a partner, but it’s apparent that he didn’t do that.
It’s a convenient argument that leaves out the fact that:
- Studds was not a single man.
- He was legally married.
- If he were a heterosexual, he wouldn’t need to purchase anything in order for his spouse to inherit his pension upon his death.
But since Studds’ partner is legally prohibited from inheriting the pension, it will go back into the general fund and subsidize the pensions of heterosexual concgressmen like moral giant Bob Ney, whose other ethical difficulties are outweighed by his penchant for “sticking tab A into slot B.”
And there are other stories, like Laurel Hester, who fought almost up until her death for her pension to go to her spouse (only to have it granted when the economic realities of a boycott, rather than a desire to do the right thing, moved the conservative county government to grant her request). And there are stories like Bill Randolph and Wesley Mercer. Mercer died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, leaving Randolph to fight for benefits a heterosexual spouse would have received without question and without extra cost.
But, after Mercer, 70, died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks, Randolph said he has had to struggle to defend the relationship, to prove he was Mercer’s life partner and that, as a gay couple, their commitment was equal to that of married straight people.
With mixed success.
Morgan Stanley, where Mercer was vice president of corporate security, acknowledged Randolph as Mercer’s surviving partner and gave him $700 cash to cover immediate expenses and, later, a $10,000 check.
… But for Randolph, who relied on Mercer for more than half of the household income, several avenues of relief are blocked. He will be receiving no social security benefits, no workers’ compensation, and none of Mercer’s military pension from his 25 years of Army service because statutes governing those funds specify that only surviving spouses are eligible.
And unless there’s a (presumably heterosexual) relative of Mercer’s around to receive some of those benefits — social security, workers’ comp, and military pension — I can only assume that most of that money will go back into the general funds that supply those same benefits to surviving spouses who are legally eligible to receive them. In other words, surviving heterosexual spouses.
Take all of the above together and it almost seems as if the “all of the burdens and none of the benefits” situation same-sex couples find themselves in, along with the tasks of shelling out more money for a few benefits and subsidizing heterosexuals with benefits that are returned to general funds because same-sex partners can’t inherit them, and it amounts to what some might call a “gay tax”; a kind of welfare system for “state sanctioned families” supported by “nonfamiiles”.
The other side of the coin is the possibility that legalizing gay marriage might be a boon to economy. The book I’m reading right now, Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights, suggests legalizing gay marriage would stimulate $16.8 billion in wedding-related spending. Even if gays married at only have the rate of heterosexual couples, that’s still $8.4 billion released into the economy. One study showed that California alone could see a $22 million to $25 million boost in state revenues and savings. Who knows? That kind of economic stimulation might even employ a heterosexual or two, not to mention paying for a few benefits too.
The New Jersey legislature has the ball now, and while it can’t address the federal benefits related to marriage, it can legalize marriage or create a legal status — like civil unions or reciprocal beneficiaries (the latter of which would also bring unmarried heterosexual couples into the discussion) — that would treat same-sex couples equally to the degree that the state government can. That would not be fairer to same-sex couples and their families, it would be better economically for New Jersey’s gay families and the state itself.