Shortly after her wife died in March, Arlene Goldberg had to give up the beloved South Florida home that the couple shared. Because Goldberg’s 2011 marriage to her partner of 47 years wasn’t recognized as legal in Florida, she was denied her wife’s social security benefits.
Without that income, Goldberg, 67, couldn’t pay her mortgage. “I’m trying to figure out how I am going to get through this time,” she said from Fort Myers, Florida. “I really can’t even pay my bills.”
Goldberg is among an untold number of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people nationwide who suffer economic distress and in some cases, poverty, as a result of anti-gay laws such as same-sex marriage bans, or from a lack of legal protections, like non-discrimination ordinances, according to a new report by two think tanks, the progressive Center for American Progress and the pro-LGBT Movement Advancement Project.
Census data and other research over the last decade have shown higher rates of financial hardship and poverty among gays. But the report’s authors make the connection between those difficulties and specific laws and policies by analyzing current incomes and poverty rates for LGBT people and their heterosexual counterparts in states that have protections and those that don’t.
“You’ve got all of these laws that have indisputable economic impact,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of MAP. “In all these states that have the bad laws we actually are seeing lower incomes and higher rates of poverty (for gays) that is disproportionate to what’s happening with their heterosexual peer comparison.”
"There is a pervasive myth that LGBT people are more affluent than the general population."
Key findings from the report, “Paying an Unfair Price,” include:
- Same-sex couples raising children made about $10,000 less a year than their heterosexual peers in states banning same-sex marriage, whereas incomes for the two groups were almost at parity in states allowing gay nuptials, according to analysis of 2012 U.S. Census data.
- Single LGBT adults who have kids are three times more likely to have incomes near the poverty line compared to single heterosexuals raising children.
- Married or partnered LGBT parents are twice as likely to have household incomes near the poverty line as opposed to married opposite-sex parents.
- Lesbian couples suffer a double financial hit due to their sexual orientation and the gender wage gap: In 2010, 7.6 percent of lesbian couples were poor compared to 5.7 percent of heterosexual couples and 4.3 percent of gay couples.
- A study of transgender Americans revealed they were nearly four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 per year than the overall population (15 percent versus 4 percent).
-- And 29 percent of gay adults earlier this year said they were thriving financially, compared to 39 percent of heterosexual adults.
Sources for the report include survey data commissioned by the Center for American Progress; analyses of census data and Gallup polls by the Williams Institute, a think tank focused on LGBT issues; and federal agencies, community-based reports and research published in academic journals.
“There is a pervasive myth that LGBT people are more affluent than the general population,” said Mushovic of MAP, adding that instead there was a “very real financial cost” to these policies. “When you’re thinking about anti-LGBT laws, people don’t really understand the real consequences that has on people’s survival, their ability to put food on the table, the ability to pay the rent.”
Mushovic said the marriage bans and lack of legal protections needed to be viewed as a package, because of how they interacted to trigger a series of financial difficulties. For example, no marriage recognition generally means no shared health insurance for gay couples.
"We knew it wouldn’t be an issue if we were a heterosexual married couple in North Carolina."
That was the case for Evan Adams-Raczowski, 29, who said he and his husband, Joseph, 41, moved from North Carolina to the Washington, D.C., area after he accrued $6,000 in medical debt. The pair couldn’t get married in their home state so Evan couldn’t be covered under his husband’s generous health plan and had to buy his own.
When Evan, who teaches part-time for an online community college, fell ill in 2011, the debt built up as doctors tried to diagnose him.
“We knew it wouldn’t be an issue if we were a heterosexual married couple in North Carolina,” he said.
After the state approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in May 2012, the couple decided to move to a state that recognized gay nuptials. That meant leaving behind family and friends, and trading a home for an apartment and higher cost of living in Maryland. But Evan is benefitting from his husband’s medical coverage though he still is paying off his debt.
“It was our only option if we wanted to get married and also have equal rights as far as something as simple as a doctor visit that some people take for granted,” he said. “I didn’t like being afraid of going to the doctor because I just couldn’t afford it.”
"Neither sexual orientation laws, family law, nor the educational system should be used as social welfare systems to be manipulated to boost incomes based on someone’s sexual lifestyle."
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the anti-gay marriage Family Research Council, said it wouldn’t be surprising for LGBT couples to be more likely to live in poverty than opposite-sex ones as a result of the benefit of the “natural institution of marriage between a man and a woman, rather than the product of any legal ‘discrimination.’”
But he noted some surveys suggest gays have higher incomes than heterosexuals.
“Neither sexual orientation laws, family law, nor the educational system should be used as social welfare systems to be manipulated to boost incomes based on someone’s sexual lifestyle,” he said in a statement.
Twenty states have enshrined protections for gays in employment, relationships (marriage), adoption and schools, while another 28 for the most part have not. Two states offer most but not all of these benefits.
Some of the financial assistance that can be denied gays in states without same-sex marriage includes spousal, veteran and disability benefits, survivor’s pension and the ability to file joint taxes or claim a family tax credit. The denial of such resources hurts the most vulnerable, such as families, older adults and those already struggling financially, Mushovic said.
"I am important and she was important. And we were married.”
Goldberg is now living on $1,400 a month, compared to the roughly $5,600 she and her wife, Carol Goldwasser, used to take in. Goldberg can’t access Goldwasser’s Social Security – which is $800 more than she earns – because the Social Security Administration only recognizes marriages valid in the state where the couple lives. Goldberg also doesn’t receive her deceased wife’s pension benefit, about $2,000 a month, because Goldwasser didn’t name her as the recipient of it. Goldberg said her spouse feared that being out as a lesbian at work could lead to discrimination. That turned out to be an unfounded fear, said Goldberg, who learned after Goldwasser’s death that her colleagues were aware of and accepted her sexual orientation.
But Goldberg couldn’t retroactively change the pension decision.
“Florida is a state that lacks nondiscrimination protections based on employment and other factors,” said Mushovic of MAP. “If there were laws in place that would have protected her (Goldwasser) from discrimination, then it would have been much easier for her to put her wife down as her beneficiary.”
Goldberg says she will pursue the Social Security. For the moment, she is awaiting a new death certificate for her wife saying she died married – not single, as the original document had read. Goldberg is part of an ACLU lawsuit challenging Florida’s marriage ban, and in a recent decision striking the prohibition down, a judge ruled that the state had to correct Goldwasser’s death certificate to reflect she had been married.
She hopes to use that document, plus others, to one day collect her wife’s Social Security benefit.
“It sure would help, big time. Not only financially but emotionally it would help because it’s verifying that I’m not a second-class citizen,” Goldberg said. “I am important and she was important. And we were married.”
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