Thursday, February 10, 2011

Protecting Social Security is a gay issue


As I was doing research for recent posts about Social Security (they are listed in the sidebar at the right), I kept thinking: Wow -- the kind of people this program aimed to help have so many of the characteristics of lesbian and gay elders!

Here's a passage from Nancy J. Altman's The Battle for Social Security that illustrates what I mean. She is describing the fate of old people before the insurance program was set up in 1935.

When Social Security became law, every state but New Mexico had poorhouses (sometimes called almshouses or poor farms). The vast majority of the residents were elderly. Most of the "inmates," as they were often labeled, entered the poorhouse late in life, having been independent wage earners until that point. ...

A higher percentage of men wound up in the poorhouse, even though women's life expectancies were longer than men's, just as they are today. The reason for this surprising result, according to a 1919 Pennsylvania commission, was that women's traditional work around the house was useful even as they aged. Consequently, the commission discovered, "Children or relatives will make greater sacrifices in order to keep an old mother at home and prevent her going to a poorhouse, than they would for an aged father or other male relative."

The poorhouse was a fate to be dreaded. ... "Privacy, even in the most intimate affairs of life, is impossible; married couples are quite generally separated; and all the inmates are regimented as though in a prison or penal colony," the [New York State Commission on Old Age Security] commission reported. It noted that "private possessions, other than the clothes on the back, are almost out of the question, since individual bureaus, closets, tables or other articles of furniture, outside of a bed, are generally not provided."

The poorhouse was always lurking in the background, haunting people as they aged.

Society expected families to take care of their old people. For gay people, that has never worked so well. Gay people who had ever publicly lived out their orientation might have lost contact with their families. It was a price we paid for being different and ourselves. We weren't likely to go on to high earning careers; we worked in society's economic backwaters. We were very likely to grow old in need. And we couldn't expect our society to respect in any way the social networks we might have built over the years. For gay people, old age might indeed mean the poorhouse.

Social Security changed that by ensuring we'd receive old age benefits based on our working lives. It gave gay people a chance to imagine an independent end of life that was the natural continuance of their earlier years. Getting old might still be hard, but it needn't mean being uprooted and dumped in a barracks to die.

From this perspective, I was thrilled to learn that the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce was collecting signatures on a petition to Congress in support of Social Security. Their email explained cogently why protecting Social Security should be a priority for lesbian and gay people.

Social Security is based on ONE simple promise: If you pay into the system, you're guaranteed benefits when you need them. Nearly all Americans will depend on Social Security at some point. Because we don't have the employment protection we deserve and we can't get married in the eyes of the federal government, LGBT people have less income when they retire and have to rely on Social Security even more than straight people. Threats to slash benefits, raise the retirement age and renew the push for privatizing Social Security will hurt those who need it most -- retirees, disabled workers and those who have lost a loved one.

Yes. Protecting Social Security must be a gay issue.

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

I vaguely remember poorhouses. And I'm one of those elders who is completely dependent on Social Security like many women who stayed home and raised families. I'm not going to write to my new Congress Critter, Jim "Tea Party" Renacci. He's already made it very clear that he's aligned himself with the rank and file GOP. And our new governor is useless, too.

I'm so mad I could scream!

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