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 retirement has not been as secure as it 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 recognizes same-sex marriage, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
“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 says.
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.
Decades of workplace discrimination impaired their earnings. The AIDS crisis frightened many HIV-positive gay men and women into thinking they wouldn’t live long and discouraged them from saving. Legal loopholes within Social Security have left gay boomers with less income.
Same-sex couples in general are likely to have saved 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 center is jointly operated by The Associated Press and NORC, a leading research center 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.
“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 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors.
Gays and lesbians have faced higher unemployment, lower wages, and workplace discrimination. While many corporations have non-discrimination policies now, it is still legal to fire someone for their sexual orientation in 27 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Two studies, one by Pew Research in 2013 and one by Gallup in 2012, concluded that LGBT individuals were more likely to make less money than their straight peers during their careers. A study by the Williams Institute, a California-based think tank, showed gay men earned as much as 32 percent less than straight men.
As a result, gay men and women over 65 are more likely to end up in poverty. The Gallup poll found that 15.9 percent of gay men over 65 were near or below the Federal poverty line, compared to 9.7 percent of heterosexual men in the same age group.
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.
MARRIED WITHOUT BENEFITS
Core elements of the retirement safety net available to married straight couples – receiving Social Security benefits and pensions – have not existed for gay Americans.
Heterosexual spouses can typically collect Social Security based on the higher earner’s work history. Not so for many gay couples. The federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages at all, even in states where marriage was legal, until last year, when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Social Security is the most important financial resource for older Americans in this country, and this is just as true for LGBT older Americans,” says SAGE’s Adams.
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. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts since 2003, but it’s not allowed in Texas, and the federal government is required by law to use the couples’ state of residence to determine benefits.
THE SHADOW OF AIDS
The AIDS epidemic killed nearly half a million Americans before effective medications were developed. It also left a financial scar by discouraging gay men and women from saving.
For some people infected by HIV, a fatalistic attitude took hold, experts say. Why save for the future when the chance of living another five years was slim?
By the time life-prolonging antiretroviral “cocktail” therapies emerged in the late 1990s, HIV-positive baby boomers had lost a decade or more of savings time.
Jim Albaugh is one of those people. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1990, he was in and out of hospitals. After coming back from the brink of death, he now faces another crisis: He has little savings and can’t work as much as he did before his illness. Without public financial support programs, he would not be able to get by.
The 53-year-old has 12 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.”
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