Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is It Time to End Spousal Benefits?


    This week there was yet another blow-up about spousal benefits for domestic partners.  Specifically, sparked by the recent death of astronaut Sally Ride, many have been talking about the unfairness of how, even though they were together for 27 years her partner will receive no benefits whatsoever because they weren’t a “family” in the way that our society (and her employers) have defined it.  Look at this idea of family, or birth family, as we currently define it, and the benefits that we receive from our employers and, later, from the government.  

    Many will frame this as a homosexual issue, but it is not.  It is a fairness issue that just happens to affect homosexual partners as well as many others who do not “fit” the current definitions of “family.”  In my opening, I deliberately chose the words “domestic partners” because there are many in our society that share their lives but cannot claim possession of benefits that should, rightly, belong to them.  Obviously, this affects the lifelong partner of Sally Ride and others like her but it also affects heterosexuals. 

    Before I was married, I shared a house with my brother.  At the time we lived together, my brother had a good job but he has been unemployed (and as far as I know, without insurance) for three years.  He is, by birth, a member of my family.  But if we were two bachelors with no other family in the world, neither our health benefits nor our pensions, nor our Social Security benefits in retirement would allow us to care for one another.

    When my wife and I were first married, we moved in with our Aunt Gladys and we lived there for a couple years until we could afford to buy our own home.  Years later, Aunt Gladys came down with a serious and life threatening illness.  Thankfully, Aunt Gladys has good insurance, but what if she didn’t?  We owe her a lot and over the years she’s been good to us, but none of our benefits could be extended to her, ever.  

    What about unmarried, retired couples?  Both are retired.  Both have lost a spouse.  Both receive a pension from a deceased spouse as well as Social Security benefits.  Both would lose so many benefits from legally marrying that they would be destitute.  I have heard serious discussions among pastors about performing church weddings without any legal paperwork so that couples like this can be married in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the church regardless of the opinion of the state regarding the legality of their marriage.

    The problem that we are having with benefits is a fairness problem and an ownership problem not simply a homosexual problem.  Homosexuals are clearly caught up in this, but even an official or legal recognition of homosexual relationships would only fix a part of the problem.  Regardless of our sexual orientation, we need to reassess who “owns” our employee and government based benefits.  Perhaps the idea, as old as it is, of ‘spousal’ or even ‘family’ benefits needs to be redefined to better reflect the way that we live today.  The era of the nuclear family, where three (or more) generations live together as a family unit and care for one another is long past.  Perhaps pension and retirement benefits should be redesigned so that they are more like an IRA, where your employer (and government) makes deposits into an account in your name and the funds in that account belong to you and to your heirs, whomever they may be.  Perhaps health benefits should just eliminate the idea of spousal benefits entirely and instead just allow you to list persons that ‘belong’ to your ‘family.’  I know there would have to be some practical limit, but if employers will cover a family with twenty biological children, surely there is a viable solution somewhere.
 
What do you think?

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