Happy Birthday Social Security! Talking with Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA)
On the occasion of Social Security’s 79th birthday on August 14th, we had a conversation with Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) about how the Windsor decision impacted Social Security benefits for older adults. Last month, Takano introduced the Social Security and Medicare Parity Act, which would help couples in non-marriage states qualify for benefits even if the state they reside in doesn’t recognize the marriage.
Why is Social Security such an important program for older adults?
Millions of Americans contribute to Social Security during their working years and deserve to receive the benefits they have earned to help them manage their retirement. With the decline of defined benefit pension plans, Social Security benefits are a becoming even more of a lifeline for seniors from all walks of life. No senior should be denied these full benefits because of who they love.
Aren’t many LGBT older adults very well-off? Do they even need Social Security? In other words, why is Social Security so important for married same-sex couples?
The myth that LGBT seniors are better off is patently false. Statistics show that a lifetime of discrimination actually hurts earning power, makes LGBT seniors less likely to have a spouse’s income they can count on, and less likely to have children to help care for them in their old age. LGBT couples, just like all other Americans, have paid into Social Security and Medicare and deserve to receive the benefits they have earned in their retirement.
Didn’t the Windsor decision ensure that the federal government would treat married same-sex couples equally, regardless of where they live in the United States?
The Windsor decision was an historical day that paved the way for equal rights for all Americans no matter who they love. However, Windsor could not change everything overnight. While it overturned section three of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Department of Justice just concluded a year-long review of what the decision means for other federal statutes. While I and others continue to believe that the Social Security Administration has the discretion to provide spousal and survivor benefits regardless of where a same-sex couple lives, the Justice Department and the Social Security Administration have concluded that eligibility for benefits be based on the state in which the couple resides. That means that couples living in non-marriage states are still prevented from getting the benefits they have earned.
Can you please explain what issues married same-sex couples who live in non-marriage states currently face?
Not only are couples in non-marriage states ineligible for certain Social Security and Medicare benefits, but a whole other host of federal benefits and protections. They don’t yet qualify for family medical leave to take care of a sick spouse, and veterans and their spouses don't receive the same spousal and survivor benefits as heterosexual couples.
Last month, I introduced the Social Security and Medicare Parity Act. My bill helps couples in non-marriage states by allowing them to qualify for benefits even if the state they reside in doesn’t recognize the marriage, so long as they’re legally married. It also makes reasonable accommodations so that couples that have been prohibited from getting married can meet Social Security and Medicare marriage tenure requirements and qualify for benefits as soon as possible.
What happens if a same-sex couple has waited dozens of years to get married in their home state, their state finally legalizes same-sex marriage, and they marry. Can they qualify for spousal benefits right away? What if the one spouse dies shortly after they are finally able to marry – is the surviving spouse eligible for survivor benefits?
That’s one of the reasons I introduced the Social Security and Medicare Parity Act. Current law requires couples to be married for nine months to be eligible for survivor benefits, and twelve months for spousal and family benefits. In other words, couples still aren’t able to get their benefits right away. If one spouse dies before meeting this requirement, than their partner would miss out on the benefits they’ve earned even if they were in a long-term committed relationship for years before marriage became legal in their state.
My bill would allow couples to meet these marriage tenure requirements by using a combination of marriage time and time in a domestic partnership prior to the change in law. These couples have been prevented from getting married through no fault of their own, and don’t deserve to have these vital benefits delayed any longer.
A lot of married same-sex couples may not be aware that they may be eligible for new or increased benefits. How does your bill address this public education challenge?
That’s a great point. Even with all publicity surrounding Windsor, only about 2,000 LGBT Americans have applied for Social Security family benefits. After facing years of discrimination, many couples may not fully understand the benefits and rights that they now have. My bill would require the Social Security Administration to notify Americans of these new policies and conduct a comprehensive outreach campaign to encourage same-sex couples to apply for the benefits they are owed. It holds SSA accountable, by requiring annual reports to Congress on the effectiveness of the outreach campaign and number of applications received.