Pres. George W. Bush’s hopes of radically reshaping Social Security through a vaguely outlined proposal to allow American workers to shift a portion of their system contributions into private accounts may have little political chance of advancing in its current conception, but the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has nonetheless performed a valuable service in issuing a research critique of the plan, “Selling Us Short.”
The Task Force effort is to be lauded on several counts.
First, and most significantly, the group has weighed in on a political question of utmost importance in the lives of all Americans and provided a sophisticated analysis of how changes to the nation’s insurance plan for senior citizens might be expected to impact the lives of gay men, lesbians and trasgendered individuals. The immediate threat of changing the system will likely languish given the lack of popular and congressional appetite for the basic sales pitch the president has made.
But, the Task Force report chronicles the evolution in thinking about Social Security within the Republican Party—and it is clear that there is a strong constituency among conservatives for some overhaul of this program in the direction of privatization. Emerging political problems for Bush may doom his dreams for reform, but the issue will not necessarily go away for good.
Like other communities of like interests in the U.S., the LGBT community needs to look beyond our obvious political goals—anti-discrimination protections, hate crimes penalties and marriage equality—and explore other aspects of social and economic policy to determine where our best interests lie. The Task Force report is a model for engaging that effort.
Mandy Hu, the principal author of the study, has done an impressive job of distilling a wide range of economic and fiscal data in presenting the Task Force’s perspective. She relies on a diverse range of experts from policy groups opposed to the president’s plan to the comptroller general of the General Accountability Office, Congress’ investigatory agency, and a Republican-appointed trustee of the Social Security trust fund. The report comes to conclusions that echo those of many economists who have looked at the Bush plan, though to be sure there are other economists out there who would find considerably more virtue in the president’s proposal.
As has been widely documented elsewhere, the Task Force report notes that the Bush plan first of all involves considerably more federal debt in a fiscal climate in which deficits are already at record levels. Hu also makes clear that in addition to assuming that individuals will invest their private accounts with better net yields than the trust fund would—a questionable assumption—the Bush plan is also predicated on a lower level of benefits paid by the trust fund going forward. The report is refreshingly clear on the point that the president proposes to base future benefit increases on the rate of inflation, rather than the rise in wage levels, which traditionally grow faster. As a result, future retirees would have to expect that their Social Security checks would not go as far as those of their parents and grandparents.
With specific reference to the LGBT community, the Task Force reports that gay and lesbian wage earners make less money over their lifetime than their straight counterparts, including married women, so they are more reliant on Social Security for their retirement security and less likely to gamble that future on uncertain private returns and benefit levels that don’t grow as much as they would have otherwise. More affluent members of the community might be less than enthusiastic about embracing this argument, and like many of their straight peers could also find considerable appeal in gaining the right to control the investment of a greater share of their retirement funds.
The Task Force also notes that with a lower frequency of child-rearing, gay and lesbian Americans might also find themselves more dependent than straight parents on institutional living arrangements when independent housekeeping becomes unmanageable. Given strong evidence the Task Force documented about the indifference and even hostility of institutional retirement housing toward gay and lesbian residents, aging members of the LGBT community might be particularly alert to the risk that their Social Security money might not afford them the greatest degree of choice available in their very old age.
Other LGBT groups, most notably the Log Cabin Republicans, have given support to the president’s plan, in part based on a philosophical predisposition toward free market solutions and also premised on the hope that a thorough-going reform of Social Security might invite the chance that the program’s spousal benefits might be opened up to gay and lesbian couples—or at least that a surviving partner could inherit funds from the deceased’s private account.
It is worth having a debate about these issues in the community, and the LCR would do well to analyze the Task Force report and offer its assessment. In any event, as the Task Force makes clear, discussions about the equity of Social Security vis-à-vis gay and lesbian couples also can and should be engaged separately from any discussion of privatization.
For those interested in learning more about the Task Force findings, visit the group’s homepage at thetaskforce.org and click on “Selling Us Short” under Features at the top right.