The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Put A Ring On It: The Economics of Equality

In my previous post, I wrote that I’m likely to hear an old favorite conservative talking point repeated over and over again while I’m at CPAC: Married cures poverty, economic inequality, and just about any other economic complaint you can name — especially for black folks. The 9th circuit court’s ruling that California’s Proposition 8 — which prohibited same-sex marriage in the state — is unconstitutional guarantees I’ll hear a lot about same-sex marriage while I’m at CPAC.

What I won’t hear at CPAC, besides any specific plans for job creation, is how declining marriage rates are not to blame for economic decline, but economic decline is really to blame for declining marriage rates. I won’t hear that the best way to increase marriage rates is improve Americans’ economic prospects by growing the economy and putting people back to work. I probably also won’t hear about the economics of that marriage would actually improve the economic standings of one group of Americans: gay couples.

The California ruling was one of the main topics around the family dinner table, as the hubby and I explained to our nine-year-old what the ruling meant. He “got it” pretty quickly, but this is a kid who went with us to lobby the Maryland state legislature on marriage equality, and was ring-bearer at our wedding (the last one, the legal one). What was harder to explain was the economics of inequality, even though we’ve had move than 10 years to understand it.

Elizabeth Warren explained it pretty well recently, when she talked about her work in finance brought her face to face with the economic inequities inherent in the enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Elizabeth Warren — who is challenging Scott Brown’s (R-MA) Senate seat in Massachusetts — has reiterated her support for LGBT equality in a new “It Gets Better” video and interview with Bay Windows. Interestingly, the former Harvard law professor argued that her “background in finance and economics” has informed her of the cost of discriminatory laws like the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA):

EW: I first wrestled with DOMA in my bankruptcy work. As you may know, a married couple is entitled to certain jointly held benefits if they file for bankruptcy but that is denied a same-sex couple married here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That’s where I first started talking about this issue and the impact DOMA has on people in very tangible ways. Working in an economic field for so long makes me comfortable making the strong economic defense for economic equality and treatment.

Indeed, since DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman, same-sex couples who marry in one of the six states that have legalized marriage equality must file separate federal tax returns and are not eligible for Social Security spousal or survivor benefits or the tax deduction “their spouse’s health insurance benefits — a cost that opposite-sex married couples don’t have to pay.” Businesses also note that the discrepancy between state and federal law requires them “to maintain two sets of books” and increase costs for “human resources, payroll, and benefits administration.”

For gay and lesbian couples and our families, that basically means having less money to take care of our families. After the kids went to bed, my husband and I talked about the economic impact inequality for our family. Just in terms of federal taxes, we’d save of money in taxes if we were able to file jointly — money that we would probably use to pad the kids’ college funds, or spend on any number of things our family needs.

See, here’s the thing that goes unsaid about same-sex couples and marriage: We, too, are the 99 percent. It’s like I wrote back in 2007:

Still, if we’re going to get into the economics of inequality as they relate to marriage, we need to be clear about something: it also effects people who are neither wealthy nor white.

Some of us, like my family are middle class, and like a lot of middle class families we’ve been squeezed by this recession too. Our families are among those experiencing long-term unemployment, wage reduction, furloughs and Every single economic reality that impacts heterosexual families hits us too, and often hits us harder because inequality is costly that way.

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.

…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.

…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.

Oh, and it turns out that marriage would also raise the economic standing of some African-Americans: gay and lesbian African-Americans and their families.

Marriage is not a panacea, and no substitute for much needed socioeconomic justice, but marriage equality would help my family, many other Black gay and lesbian families, and our children. In fact, some of the very issues Cannick brought up would be impacted by marriage equality in ways that would benefit Black gay and lesbian couples and families.

The economy is in a downturn, and we all know that when the rest of America catches a cold, our communities get pneumonia. Unfortunately, not having access to the benefits and protections of marriage leaves too many of our families out in the cold. The National Black Justice Coalition’s joint report with the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force on Black same-sex households from the 2000 census data shows that Black same-sex couples report less annual median income than Black married opposite-sex couples and White same-sex couples. In difficult times inequality forces them to make do with fewer resources than their heterosexual married counterparts, because they’re ineligible for protections and benefits that help families stay afloat in crises.

Figures are abstract, but represent real families pay a real price for inequality. Mikki Mozelle and Lisa Kebreau, a Black lesbian couple — among those for whom Cannick thinks marriage equality isn’t a priority — who were also one of the plaintiff couples in Maryland’s marriage lawsuit, spent upwards of $6,000 on legal documents to give their family a few protections, and with no guarantee that their documents will be recognized.

In the Maryland county where I live, a $55 application fee gets you a marriage license and the 1,049 benefits and protections that come with it. So heterosexuals pay about $0.05 per protection/benefit. Mozlle and Kebreau (and other Black gay couples) pay hundreds of times more than heterosexuals for less protection and fewer benefits, and often out a less income.

No matter how expensive they are, not having those documents exacts a cost. Ask Takia Foskey and Jo Rabb, a Black lesbian couple — for whom, Cannick says, marriage equality isn’t all that important — and plaintiffs in Maryland’s marriage lawsuit. In 2003, Rabb had emergency gall bladder surgery. Foskey was not allowed to see Rabb, receive any information about her condition, or sit in the family waiting room. Because she was not family.

Foskey and Rabb resemble a lot of other Black same-sex couples, who are 25% more likely to hold municipal jobs, and who are twice as likely to raise children. Rabb, a Baltimore city bus driver, cannot enroll Foskey and her children in the state health plan. So they — including a son with asthma — went without health insurance while Foskey worked part-time. Foskey and her children are ineligible for Rabb’s death benefits, if she should have an accident on her route.

Because of ineligibility for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, neither Rabb or Foskey can take time off and care for the other in the event of an accident or illness, and still have job security. In addition, Rabb could not use medical leave to care for either of Foskey’s biological children. Our families are more likely to include non-biological — adopted or jointly-raised — children, who also pay the price for inequality.

Alicia Heath-Toby and Saundra Toby-Heath, a Black lesbian couple — for whom Cannick has declared marriage equality a low priority — and plaintiffs in the New Jersey Marriage Case, paid two health insurance premiums, because neither could carry the other on her health insurance. They couldn’t get family policy, because, they were not legally a family; twenty years together and grandchildren notwithstanding.

Add it all up, and inequality is expensive for black same-sex households. Cannick is right that there are too many Blacks living at or below the poverty line, or living just this side of it. For Black gay families, inequality adds another economic burden.

Inequality exacts a different price when a loved one dies unexpectedly.

Wesley Mercer, a gay Black man, died on September 11, 2001, while helping evacuate the World Trade Center. His partner of 26 years, Bill Randolph, also a Black gay man, struggled to get equal recognition for their relationship. Morgan Stanley, Mercer’s employer, gave him $700 to cover immediate expenses, and later a check for $10,000. Though Mercer supplied half the household income, Randolph does not receive Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation, or Mercer’s 25-year army pension. Only spouses are eligible.

Randolph has spoken up about what he faced as a gay, man losing a partner on 9/11, without the benefits and protections of marriage. I doubt he believes he or any of the Black gay couples who were plaintiffs in the state marriage lawsuits — Corey Davis & Andre LeJune (CA), Mikki Mozelle & Lisa Kebreau (MD), Alvin Williams & Nigel Simon (MD), Takia Foskey & Jo Rabb (MD), Alicia Heath-Toby & Saundra Toby-Heath (NJ) — would agree that that inequality is a “secondary issue.”

…The difference is stark, and while it may be an insignificant difference to Cannick, it isn’t to any of the number 85,000 Black same-sex couples across the country, struggling with the day-to-day economic challenges of inequality that make it difficult to protect and provide for our families.

The 9th circuit court’s ruling on proposition 8 won’t change any of the above, but maybe it brings us a step closer to changing it.

I don’t expect to hear about any of this at CPAC either, anymore than I expect to hear any thing about creating an economy that works for the other 99 percent of Americans — including families like mine.  (Being black and gay, it’s probably all my fault, to hear conservatives tell it.) Instead, I’ll probably hear a lot about how people like me and families like mine caused the economy crisis in the first place. I’ll hear lots of blame. But I won’t hear any solutions.

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