AB writer, commenter and Social Security expert, Dale Coberly provides a different take on whether “President Biden Should Direct the Social Security Administration to Stop Penalizing Marriage.”
Nancy Altman wrote the following piece, which appeared in PROGRESS AMERICA, on December 16, 2022 as well as Common Dreams. I thought it needed a response because I regard it as dangerous to Social Security. I have inserted my responses interlinear below embolden.
Nancy Altman Begins here:
Altman: Friend, I want to tell you a story―it’s a little long, but I think when we get to the end, it will be clear: President Biden should direct the Social Security Administration to stop penalizing marriage.
Me: Social Security does not penalize marriage, but saying “penalize marriage” is a good way to rouse people to your side. In fact Social Security gives benefits to wives who do not contribute to Social Security, nor do their husbands contribute for them. Presumably the designers of Social Security recognized a need to protect wives and protect marriage as important to the national welfare.
Altman: Lori Long was diagnosed in childhood with a rare disease that requires extensive medical treatments, supports, and services. She receives Social Security, earned for her by her now-deceased parents. Medicare and Medicaid provide her health insurance.
Me: Note Lori Long appears never to have contributed to Social Security, but she receives benefits because her parents did. This appears to me to “protect marriage” as it grants benefits to children, though I don’t know if it requires the children’s parents to have been legally married.
Altman: Given the millions of beneficiaries and recipients who are affected by the marriage penalties, it is highly inefficient to require them to assert their religious claims individually to obtain relief.
Me: Note “marriage penalty” is repeated as if it is an established fact. And now we are asked to feel it is a burden (inefficient) to ask a person to assert their religious claims for relief.
Altman: In 2015, she (Lori) met Mark Contreras. They fell in love, became engaged, and began to plan their wedding—only to discover that marriage would be a death sentence for Ms. Long.
Ms. Long’s doctors have told her that losing the medical treatments, supports, and services which she receives from Medicare and Medicaid would be life-threatening. (Those same comprehensive treatments, supports, and services are generally not provided by private health insurance and are prohibitively expensive without insurance.)
The Social Security Act requires that, if Ms. Long and Mr. Contreras marry, her Social Security and Medicare benefits terminate the month before the date of their marriage. (The only exception is if Ms. Long were to marry another Social Security beneficiary, which Mr. Contreras is not. Nor would the benefits be reinstated if Mr. Contreras died or if they divorced.)
Me: Ah, Ms. Long’s benefits will be terminated if she marries someone not covered (not paying into? not receiving benefits?) by Social Security. And benefits would not be reinstated if they divorced . . . so much for protecting marriage.
Altman: As heartbreaking as their inability to marry is, it is also against the law. It violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which prohibits any application of federal law that substantially burdens religious freedom.
Me Heartbreaking, inability to marry . . . but benefits continue if she does not marry. But wait . . . substantially burdens religious freedom? Oh, Lori’s religion prohibits her from living in sin. Well, is it better to die married or to live in sin. I think Jesus would know the answer to that. I don’t see a substantial burden. Neither do I remember Ms. Altman caring very much about “religious freedom” before this. Perhaps Ms. Long could get a dispensation from her church? My objection to this is the heartbreaking assumption there are no alternatives available to Ms. Long.
Altman: Lori Long isn’t alone in this dilemma. President Biden has the power to direct the Social Security Administration to end the marriage penalty. Sign here to tell him to use that power!
Me: But ending this particular “religious freedom” if on a large scale, would add to the costs of Social Security without adding to its revenue. Ms. Altman is a long time “friend of Social Security,” but she has recently expressed a desire to turn Social Security into welfare . . . that is, “make the rich pay.” Ms Altman knows, FDR deliberately designed SS not to be welfare “so no damn politician can take it away from them.” In her book she tells a story about FDR personally intervening to prevent his social security commission from including an eventual resort to general taxes: “making the rich pay.”
Altman: Unquestionably, the termination of benefits upon marriage is an overwhelming burden on Ms. Long, who has been a devout, practicing Christian throughout her life and believes marriage is a holy sacrament. She and her fiancé want to have children, but having children out of wedlock conflicts with their religious beliefs. They attend services where married couples are asked to stand and are blessed—and they are unable to receive that blessing. Moreover, as a Sunday school teacher, a Vacation Bible School teacher, and a leader in the youth ministry, she believes that she should model proper behavior to her students—including marriage.
Me: Unquestionably. And there is no other way to resolve this dilemma. I have long advocated that the religion-hating part of the Progressive movement should show more respect for the beliefs of others. But I have never been fond of using claims of “religious freedom” as a ploy to gain political advantage.
Altman: The only exception RFRA allows is if the government has a compelling interest and, even then, the government loses unless there is no other less burdensome way to achieve its goal. There is no compelling reason to force Ms. Long—or anyone else—to choose between their religious beliefs and the benefits for which they otherwise qualify.
Me oops, somehow we slid from the government having a compelling interest in overruling claims of religious freedom . . . such as the life of the person . . . to having a compelling reason to force that person to choose. between claiming religious freedom or collecting benefits. [on rereading my comment here, I am not sure that either Altman or I are clear about just what compelling interest we are talking about. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.]
Altman: RFRA forbids the burden on Ms. Long’s religious freedom by the potential termination of her Social Security benefits, just as the Supreme Court held that the withholding of unemployment benefits was an unconstitutional burden on Adell Sherbert’s religious freedom. (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act explicitly restores the religious freedom test set forth in Ms. Sherbert’s decision. The test had been undermined by subsequent decisions.)
In Ms. Sherbert’s case, South Carolina’s Employment Security Commission had denied her claim for unemployment benefits, because Ms. Sherbert, a Seventh-Day Adventist, had refused all positions that required her to work on Saturdays, her Sabbath. The agency had ruled that her desire to observe her Sabbath was not a good enough reason to refuse work that had been offered to her.
The precedent is clear. President Biden MUST use his power to end the marriage penalty for Social Security beneficiaries!
Me: Yes, so clear you don’t have to bother your silly little head about it. we just told you it was clear, didn’t we?
Altman: The South Carolina statute forced Ms. Sherbert to choose between attending Sabbath services and temporary cash benefits; the Social Security Act is forcing Ms. Long to choose between the lifetime, daily sacrament of marriage and the potential loss of her life.
Me: yep. no other choice.
Altman: Tellingly, those burdens are much greater than the burden the Trump Administration found sufficient under RFRA to exempt religious organizations from having to complete a form to escape a requirement of providing contraceptive coverage as part of employer-provided health insurance.
Me: I dunno, providing contraceptive coverage runs into real money. maybe Ms Long could complete a form?
Altman: Unless contraception is against an employer’s religious beliefs, employers are required to include coverage in the health insurance they provide. If contraception is against an employer’s religion, all the Obama administration required was that the employer simply file a form stating that fact. The filing automatically freed employers from the obligation and cost of providing contraceptives. To not penalize the employees, though, the written filing caused the insurance company providing the health insurance to still provide the coverage but absorb the cost itself.
The Trump administration, relying on RFRA, reversed the requirement that employers file the form, on the grounds that the mere filing might make some employers feel complicit. To be clear, no religious organization had to provide its employees with insurance that covered contraception. All a religious organization would have had to do is file a claim one time.
If filing paperwork to avoid a legal obligation is an undue burden on religious liberty, and being pressured by financial need to work on one’s Sabbath is an undue burden, the loss of life-sustaining benefits as a result of Ms. Long’s religiously-motivated decision to marry is without question an undue burden on her religious liberty within the meaning of RFRA.
Accordingly, Ms. Long, who is represented by the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), has just filed a written request asking the Social Security Administration to comply with RFRA and allow her to marry without losing her benefits. SSA should immediately grant this relief—and the Biden administration should do much more.
Me: well, i would be disposed to grant the relief, because i have no religious objection to humanitarian relief from “the law” . . . but it does not follow that Biden should do much more
Altman: The provision in the law that would cause Ms. Long to lose her benefits if she married is only one of a number of anti-marriage provisions in the programs that SSA administers. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), also administered by SSA, . . .
Me: but SSI is welfare and is not Social Security.
Altman: . . . pays two married recipients’ 25 percent less than two other recipients identical in all respects except that they simply live together as roommates. The married couple’s allowable assets are also 25 percent lower. Moreover, SSI recipients can lose life-sustaining Medicaid benefits,
Me: Medicaid is not Social Security.
Altman: . . . along with SSI benefits, if they marry people with even extremely modest income or savings. That is because those resources are automatically attributed to the recipients themselves.
Importantly and heartbreakingly, these rules affect not only the religious freedom of those who receive the benefits, but their chosen partners, their families, and their broader communities. These laws mean that Mr. Contreras, who is not receiving a penny in benefits, is nonetheless prevented from sharing the commitment of marriage with the woman he loves.
Me: Apparently, he is prevented from sharing the house and household expenses as well. Maybe they could marry in secret . . . except of course from the eyes of God?
Altman: At the very least, the Biden administration should publicize that it is removing the marriage penalties of those Social Security beneficiaries and SSI recipients who attest that they are not marrying, despite their religious convictions, because they would lose benefits.
But the Administration should go further. Given the millions of beneficiaries and recipients who are affected by the marriage penalties, it is highly inefficient to require them to assert their religious claims individually to obtain relief. Instead, the administration should start treating all those affected as they now treat unmarried individuals.
Me: ah, there’s the rub: millions of beneficiaries who have not paid into Social Security? Is it making an establishment of religion to exempt “religious” people from taxes . . . or paying their way in general?
Altman: Sign now: Tell the Biden administration to immediately act to protect Social Security benefits from this obscure rule that penalizes marriage!
The Biden administration should immediately announce that adults with disabilities can marry and continue to receive the Social Security benefits their parents have earned for them. It should immediately announce that two SSI recipients who are married will be paid the same level of benefits as unmarried recipients are paid. It should immediately announce that two SSI recipients who are married will have the same higher assets limits that unmarried SSI recipients have.
By taking these bold steps, the Biden administration will be acting in defense of marriage and in support of religion. Using the authority of RFRA to undo marriage penalties is the right public policy and politics. It is pro-marriage, pro-religion, and pro-Social Security.
Nancy Altman: Social Security Works
Me: Social Security will not work when Altman gets through with it. It is Altman who wants to ”do so much more.” She wants to turn Social Security into welfare paying benefits to everyone with a heartbreaking story even if they have never paid into Social Security. This means the workers who have paid for their own benefits will have to pay for the benefits of those who haven’t paid, driving the cost [payroll tax] of SS much higher, or reducing benefits for everyone. Or, by “making the rich pay” for benefits they don’t receive. Which will make even the honest [and sane] rich work to destroy SS entirely.
I don’t want to make any bold assertions here about what Biden MUST do, but Social Security can’t solve every problem. And if people insist that it does, without actually paying the premiums, they will kill it. As designed it does protect milllions and millions of people from falling into poverty. and has done so for over eighty years.
There are welfare programs to help people who have not paid for Social Security. There is no reason to change the very nature of Social Security…which works because it is worker paid insurance and not welfare…in order to help those who haven’t paid for the insurance.
You have a very modest reliable car that gets you to work every day. If you drop a big engine into it, and attach a backhoe to it, you will increase the cost of running it, and it neither get you to work or dig trenches for you.
Or to put it in Altman-speak:
Social Security Works Because it is not welfare.
You MUST tell your congressman . . . in a way he can’t pretend to not hear.