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We Need to Talk About Disability and the 'Marriage Penalty'

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As a gay woman, I grew up believing I would never be able to get married. But in 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made my wildest dream come true — or so I thought. I assumed I was in the clear once same-sex marriage was legal. When I was ready, I would be able to marry the love of my life. I was wrong.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned that chronically ill and disabled people do not have the equal right to marry. While it’s perfectly legal, marriage comes at a great cost. That cost is “the marriage penalty.”

The Marriage Penalty

Most government assistance programs are income-driven and you only qualify if you make below a certain annual income. If you receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicare, you’re cut off once you get married. It’s important to note that I am not talking about Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) which has a whole different set of rules.

After you’re married, your spouse’s income is counted as yours and disqualifies you from assistance. Earned income (any money you make) and unearned income (any money your spouse makes) both factor into what you receive for SSI and your Medicaid eligibility. So, if your spouse works, you become ineligible for assistance. That means no more monthly checks to help you pay for daily necessities, rent, food, etc. and no more insurance through Medicare and Medicaid, even if your spouse doesn’t have insurance. How can the government cut someone off from a program they obviously need and rely on?

Marriage or Healthcare: Pick One

This financial burden creates an unimaginable amount of stress on a couple. As a disabled person, you must make a choice: be legally married to the love of your life and be straddled with an obscene amount of medical bills forever, or never marry and continue to receive assistance. Most couples don’t have the privilege of making that choice. It’s simply impossible to pay out of pocket what was once covered by SSI, Medicare and/or Medicaid. Unless your spouse is incredibly wealthy and can afford the thousands of dollars each month in related medical bills, losing assistance is crushing.

Disabled people are forced to choose between getting care and getting married. It’s demeaning and devalues the love of two people. I haven’t found a way through this twisted bureaucracy, but there are a couple of ways to move forward with your life if you find yourself in this tough situation.

Call your representatives! Bring this issue to the forefront in politics.

Be an advocate and make your voice heard. Change will only happen if disabled people demand to be treated equally. This may be intimidating or scary to do at first, but lawmakers need to hear your first-hand experience and how the marriage penalty affects you personally. Put a name and face to the issue for them. You never know what kind of ally you can make in the process!

Choose to be married in your heart, not in the eyes of the government.

This option requires a lot of grieving and acceptance, but if you can get there on an emotional level, it’s the best solution disabled people have as of right now. You can do all the things normal couples do: get engaged, wear a ring, have a ceremony with friends and family, live together and create a life together. You just won’t receive the tax benefits of being a legally married couple. But the trade-off of still receiving the desperately needed assistance is a good one.

What I’ve Done

Personally, I’ve chosen to do both options. As someone who has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, the first option was a no-brainer. I’ve written letters to my representatives and asked for meetings to address this pertinent issue. I bring up the marriage penalty in the support groups I belong to, hoping to spread awareness and shed light on why this conversation needs to be had.

The second option of emotional marriage but not legal marriage has been a harder pill to swallow. I feel angry that disabled people not only deal with accessibility issues, but must also face this unfair choice. My girlfriend is stripped of her right to marry and she lives with the hardships of my disability. That makes me feel guilty. I’m also bitter that my life is so much more complicated than my peers.

Take Action!

But by sharing my story, I hope it inspires others to act. There is strength in numbers. While I still dream about being fully equal in the eyes of the government and society, I will be content with no official papers or documents if it means I still get SSI and Medicare. I don’t need a piece of paper to validate my love, but I will fight for my dream of full equality.

Originally published: October 14, 2020
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