Ellen Morgenstern (center) speaks with attendees at a Know Your Rights town hall meeting.
Ellen Morgenstern (center) speaks with attendees at a Know Your Rights town hall meeting.

By Ellen Morgenstern

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations across California have focused on marriage equality for several years and were given a huge boost by the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision in June 2013 protecting same-sex marriage. Less known and understood at the time was the seismic change that ruling ushered in for same-sex married couples in California by conveying equality in federal programs.

None is more essential and potentially financially rewarding than Social Security. Now, because of the landmark June 2016 Obergefell, same-sex couples throughout the country enjoy a level playing field with opposite-sex couples and can access similar earned benefits.

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When marriage equality became a reality in 2013 the LBGT community had little understanding of the kinds of benefits offered to the children and spouses of workers who are insured for benefits. LGBT folks wary of government for myriad reasons, and elders who have been forced to spend far too many years in the closet, were simply unfamiliar with the new benefits that the Windsor decision opened to them and were reluctant to step up and claim the benefits that were rightfully theirs.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare recognized this extraordinary knowledge gap and this year formed a unique collaboration with The California Wellness Foundation and the Social Security Administration to fill the public information gap. In “town halls” across the state, LGBT couples, individuals and their communities are being educated about the potential for enhanced Social Security benefits — spousal, survivor, dependent minor and other categories as well as the impact on their Medicare benefits.

In general, the situations of same couples are no different that opposite sex couples — they may be married partners whose earning histories are significantly different, have a disability that prevents them from working, started their family late in life and have a minor child living at home, or be a widow or widower. So what is the difference? For LGBT folks Social Security spousal benefits are new benefits that they likely know very little about. The huge knowledge gap that leads to accessing these benefits must be bridged, which is what the town hall meetings are all about.

In addition to providing vital retirement security, Social Security is an economic stimulus to the state of California to the tune of $77 billion a year and it is the nation’s number number-one anti-poverty program. Depending upon the earning history of a same-sex married couple, if they meet basic age and work history requirements, the lower wage earner may be eligible for a considerable “raise” in their monthly benefit — some could see an increase of $600 to $700 a month!

This potential economic boost is particularly important to the LGBT community, which has been shown to have higher poverty rates and whose health and longevity generally trail opposite-sex marriages. But individuals must apply to Social Security in order to benefit. Each day that people delay in filing claims translates into resources that they are not accessing — money that could be used for rent, prescriptions, food and other critical life needs.

If you live in San Diego, the last two Know Your Rights Town Halls are coming to this community on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Besides a moderated panel of experts, the town halls will feature the highest-ranking Social Security official in the country, Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin, who has been very supportive of the Know Your Rights Initiative. Top administrators from the Social Security Administration are participating in these important outreach events as well as elected officials, LGBT community leaders, and local and national experts. We urge you to take advantage of the opportunities to learn about what the benefits are and how you can access them.

In this the 80th year of Social Security, the LGBT community has lots to cheer about. But nothing would be better than accessing the financial benefits that could make a huge difference in their quality of life here in San Diego.

Ellen Morgenstern is project director for the Know Your Rights Initiative/California Initiative.