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?

4 comments:

  1. Anyone can leave wail.
    Any one can contest a will.
    All have a right to name the beneficiary on IRA, life insurance, bank accounts, property etc.
    If both parties are employed, married or not, they collect their own social security not their partners or spouse.
    Children are always entitled to receive the benefits of the parent should they pass married or not.
    The information is available on line at the Social Security Administration web site.
    Your alarm is unfounded and the nuclear family is not disappearing.

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  2. d,

    Thanks for the comment but these cases specifically *cannot* be cared for in a will. If I die and my wife remarries, she cannot receive any social security benefits due me despite the fact that I worked for it. Sally Ride's lifelong partner cannot receive one penny of her pension nor can pensions be "willed" to siblings or anyone else. Health benefits cannot be extended to anyone outside of a narrow definition of "family." I'm not saying that the family is going away, I'm saying that the definitions that we are using leave too many people out and the system needs to be fixed.

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  3. A few comments…
    Regarding pensions, “defined benefit plans” (company “owned”) are becoming rare as a rapidly growing number of employers are switching to “defined contribution plans” (employee “owned”). So, this is a step in the right direction, in my opinion.

    A few years back Pres. Bush tried to reform Social Security so that at least part of it would be “owned” by the covered individuals, but unfortunately this got shot down mostly due to fear-mongering that some people might not be able to manage their pension assets and “lose everything”.

    Regarding Sally Ride in particular, she was public figure, who deliberately kept her personal life private. It’s sad to see that some folks are exploiting her death to try to advance a political agenda supporting gay marriage. If the point of gay marriage is reduced to “getting a check”, it’s a pathetic argument.

    Lastly, the fact the our employers provide these benefits is largely due to an unintended side-effect of government wage and price controls during WWII. Had this not happened, our benefits would be more like our auto insurance, where we can list persons to be covered on the policy without regard to restricted definitions of “family”.

    --your brother Mark

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  4. I agree with much that you said Mark. There are many 'wrinkles' that add to the complexity of the problem. Wage controls may have been a part of the inception of such benefits but for decades employer paid benefits were also exempted from taxation so they were a cheaper way of giving employees a raise than giving an increase in wages. When Congress began taxing benefits in the 80's we began a long spiral of benefits cuts and other modifications.

    Obviously simple greed is a possibility but often the problem is deeper (broader?)than that. The concern of the church should not be a knee jerk reaction to perceived doctrinal problems with sin but should focus instead on moving toward a system that is fair (at least as fair as possible) to everyone.

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