NEW YORK, N.Y. – For Kathy Murphy, the difference between being gay or straight is $583 a month.
Retirement should have been a “slam dunk,” the 62-year-old Texas widow says. She saved, bought a house with her spouse and has a pension through her employer.
But Murphy’s golden years have not been as secure as they should have been. She is missing out on thousands of dollars a year in Social Security benefits simply because she was married to a woman, not a man.
Murphy fell into a loophole in Social Security that denies survivor benefits to same-sex couples depending on what state they live in. Had Murphy and her wife, Sara Barker, lived next door in New Mexico, a state that does recognize same-sex marriage, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
“If I had been straight, getting widow’s benefits would have been a slam dunk,” Murphy says. “I never thought I would live to see same-sex marriage, but the government still minimizes my marriage and my relationship of 32 years.”
Murphy could be thought of as just one of the many baby boomers who are not prepared for retirement. But while the group overall is not ready to stop working, gay boomers face challenges that make them even more vulnerable, experts say.
For many, decades of workplace discrimination impaired their earning power. The AIDS crisis caused lasting financial and psychological damage, particularly for gay men. And legal pitfalls within Social Security, the cornerstone in any senior’s financial planning, have left gay boomers ill-equipped for retirement.
Same-sex couples in general are likely to have saved far less for retirement than their straight counterparts, according to an exclusive analysis of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The centre is jointly operated by The Associated Press and NORC, a leading research centre at the University of Chicago.
The median retirement savings for a same-sex couple is roughly $66,000, while straight married couples have roughly $88,000, according to the data, which looks at the finances of straight and same-sex couples aged 19 to 95 going back to 2001.
This data, as well as other studies, show that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults tend to be poorer, in worse health, and most often, alone — with no family to care for them when they reach old age.
“In the aging world, there has been little regard for even the existence of LGBT older people, let alone their particular social and financial needs,” says Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE, a national organization focused on social services and advocacy for LGBT seniors.
When financial firm Prudential asked LGBT adults aged 25 to 68 last year if they were “well prepared” for retirement, only 14 per cent said they were, compared with 29 per cent of the total population.
And in a sad irony, many of the aging pioneers of gay rights are too old to reap the retirement benefits from the marriage laws they championed.
Gays and lesbians have faced higher unemployment, lower wages and a workplace where discrimination based upon sexual orientation was common. While many corporations have non-discrimination policies now, it is still legal to fire someone for their sexual orientation in 21 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Two polls, one by Pew Research in 2013 and one by Gallup in 2012, reached the same conclusion: LGBT individuals were more likely to make less money than their straight peers during their careers. Gay men earned as much as 32 per cent less than straight men, according to research by the Williams Institute, a California-based think-tank that focuses on LGBT issues.
As a result, gay men and women over 65 are more likely to end up in poverty. Lesbians, who face wage discrimination because of both their gender and sexual orientation, are even more vulnerable.
Being LGBT “just amplifies the financial problems women already face in the workforce,” says Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, a Denver-based LGBT-focused think-tank .
The Gallup poll found that 15.9 per cent of gay men over 65 were near or below the Federal poverty line, compared to 9.7 per cent of heterosexual men in the same age group. While the Gallup poll showed poverty rates for straight and gay women to be statistically similar, other studies, including a 2009 report by the Williams Institute, showed lesbian couples over the age of 65 were twice as likely to live below the poverty line as opposite-sex couples, and were much more likely to be on public assistance programs such as food stamps.
MARRIED WITHOUT BENEFITS
Gay couples were only recently extended the core elements of the retirement safety net available to married straight couples: inheritance of a spouse’s Social Security benefits and pensions. But even with the recent expansion of gay marriage, same-sex couples still face discrimination when it comes to benefits.
When a husband or wife in a straight marriage dies, their spouses can typically collect Social Security benefits based on the higher earner’s work history. Not so for many gay spouses. Only widows or widowers in states that recognize same-sex marriage can get that higher income.
Why? Social Security differs from most federal programs in that the law requires it to use individual states’ definition of marriage. That requirement is why the Obama Administration was unable to extend Social Security benefits to all same-sex couples nationwide, even after the Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act last year. Before then, the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriage at all, even in states where it was legal. Domestic partnerships are still unrecognized by the federal government.
In Florida, Arlene Goldberg faces a retirement of significantly less income. When her partner of 47 years, Carol Goldwasser, died in March, Goldberg was denied her wife’s Social Security survivor benefits on the basis that Florida does not recognize same-sex marriage.
Goldwasser’s death certificate said “single, never married,” even though the couple wed in New York in 2011. Had they been living in New York, Goldberg would earn $800 more in monthly benefits.
“The Social Security problems were bad, but the fact they listed Carol as single was the worst possible thing they could have done to me,” Goldberg says.
The State of Florida revised Goldwasser’s death certificate in October to recognize the couple’s marriage, but Goldberg still has not received any Federal benefits.
“The Social Security Administration knows this is a problem, but there is little they can do, because they’re bound to the letter of the law,” says Karen Loewy, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, a national organization that focuses on legal issues affecting the LGBT community.
In the case of Murphy and Baker, the couple got married in Massachusetts in 2010. Baker died in 2012 and since then Murphy has been unable to collect her wife’s benefit of $583 a month. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts since 2003, but it’s not allowed in Texas, and the federal government is required to use the couples’ state of residence to determine benefits.
“I try not to worry about money, but it’s about fairness,” Murphy says.
This isn’t the first time state marriage laws and Social Security has been at odds. The denial of benefits to mixed-race couples was cited by the Supreme Court in 1967, when it struck down laws that barred black and whites from marrying. For gay couples, the state laws that block federal benefits amount to similar discrimination, advocates say.
Government agencies have little understanding of the scope of problems facing the LGBT demographic. The Administration on Aging, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, collects data on aging minority groups such as African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics, but not on gay individuals. This is important because the federal government allocates money toward specific elderly programs based on these surveys.
The White House has called for legislation to allow same-sex couples to access survivor benefits in all states. It also has asked for an update of the Older Americans Act to authorize data collection on LGBT individuals. However, there has been little momentum in Congress to take up these issues.
“We’re not talking about some fringe benefit here,” says SAGE’s Adams. “Social Security is the most important financial resource for older Americans in this country, and this is just as true for LGBT older Americans.”
THE SHADOW OF AIDS
Bill C. was never supposed to reach retirement. Diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980s, he spent three years in and out of hospitals with AIDS-related infections, watching helplessly as dozens of his friends died.
The 67-year-old, who did not want his last name used for fear his HIV status would negatively impact his acting career, chose to live for what moments he thought he had left. He cashed in his retirement savings and bought a waterfront home on Long Island he knew he couldn’t afford. There he thought he’d spend his days sailing, fishing and riding horses until the disease took him.
He nearly died a handful of times, spending much of 1995, 1996 and 1997 in the hospital. He had to shutter his fabric business.
And the dream house where he was supposed to live out the rest of his life? It was taken by the bank in 1995.
Like Bill C., many long-term AIDS survivors interviewed by the AP talked about poor financial decisions they made in the 1980s and 1990s — when they believed they were facing a death sentence — and are now paying for as they enter retirement.
The advent of life-prolonging antiretroviral “cocktail” therapies in the late 1990s helped end that fatalistic outlook, but by then, HIV-positive baby boomers had lost a decade or more of savings time. Those who had cashed in their retirement funds had to start saving again. Those who had AIDS-related infections went on workplace disability, stunting their savings potential.
“A lot of people who had jobs and financial resources before they became sick were then stuck in some relatively permanent status of financial disarray,” says Sean Strub, the founder of POZ, a New York-based magazine focused on the HIV-positive community.
Jim Albaugh is one of these people.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1987, then AIDS in 1990, Albaugh was in and out of hospitals. But after coming back from the brink of death, he faces a different crisis: He can’t work as much as before he was sick and has little savings.
When the 55-year-old former actor does save, “something pops up and it’s gone.” Recently, he says, he was “lucky” to buy a new pair of shoes. Without the public support programs that help him with his New York City rent, he would not be able to get by.
Albaugh has 10 years before he hits retirement age. But when asked about it, he says: “I don’t think about retirement because I don’t believe I will have one.”
He can’t work as much as before and has fallen behind on saving for retirement.
“I was working 40 hours a week and I ended up twice in the hospital,” he says. “It took me a long time to realize I couldn’t work as much as I really wanted.”
Albaugh hopes to wean himself off some public aid programs in the next couple years but acknowledges that he’ll need others, like Social Security disability.
“I’ll work as hard as I can until I can work no more. After that,” he says, his voice trailing off, “I don’t know what I will do.”