Beyond Stereotypes: Poverty in the LGBT Community

By Brad Sears and Lee Badgett
Published by TIDES | Momentum
Issues 4, June 2012

Some LGBT people are poor. In fact, after controlling for a number of factors associated with poverty, rates for LGB adults are higher than for heterosexual adults.

This fact should not be surprising. After all, LGBT people are born into all types of families, including those who are poor. LGBT people face the same socio-economic challenges that other people who share their sex, race, ethnicity, age, and disability face. But they also face unique obstacles because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. These include a higher risk of being homeless when they are young, harassment and discrimination at school and at workplace, and being denied the economic benefits of marriage.

To envision the LGBT poor, you only have to think about the young gay man who is kicked out of his home and ends up at the Greyhound Bus Station in Hollywood; the transgender woman being turned down in job interview after job interview for entry level jobs; or an elderly lesbian whose partner’s death means less social security income and possibly the loss of her home.

However, LGBT poverty remains surprising because these are not the dominant images of the community, and stereotypes remain resilient. Most directly implicated is the myth of affluence that historically has been pinned on several marginalized communities, including Jews and Asian-Pacific Islanders. However, for LGBT people, this stereotype rests on a number of other ones. For many, when they think about LGBT people, they envision gay, white, young men who do not have children. Think “Will” on Will & Grace. Breaking down that dominant image provides both an understanding of LGBT poverty and the work and coalitions needed to address it:

Women. There are approximately 9 million LGBT people in the United States, and almost half of these are lesbian and bisexual women. In addition to facing sexual orientation discrimination, these women also face sex discrimination in education and the workplace and the persistent wage gap in the US. Twenty-four percent of lesbians and bisexual women are poor, compared with only 19% of heterosexual women. (It’s not that gay and bisexual men aren’t poor, but their poverty rates are roughly equal (13%) to those of heterosexual men.)

People of Color. According to a Williams Institute analysis of Census 2000 data, almost one in five members of same-sex couples in the United States are people of color, and one in eight are Latino/a. Like people of color more generally, LGBT people of color are more likely to live in poverty. For example, African-American same-sex couples are significantly more likely to be poor than African-American married heterosexual counterparts and are roughly three times more likely to live in poverty than white same-sex couples.

The Young and the Old. LGBT people are of all ages, and the young and the old are particularly economically vulnerable. An estimated 1.6 million youth in the U.S. experience homelessness each year, and research suggests that between 20% and 40% of them identify as LGBT. Among members of same-sex couples in the United States, 7% are 65 years of age or older and 28% are disabled. Nearly 6% of individuals in same-sex couples receive Medicaid or other government assistance for those with low incomes or a disability.

Parents and Children. Approximately 17% of same-sex couples are raising their “own” children. Williams Institute research has consistently shown that children of same-sex couples have poverty rates twice those of children in heterosexual married couple households. For these families, being denied the legal protections and economic safeguards provided to married couples and parents and children could contribute to higher poverty rates.

Transgender People. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are four times as likely to have a household income under $10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed as the typical person in the U.S. Ninety percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. Almost one in five reported being homeless at some point in their lives.

While these are among the most economically vulnerable within the LGBT community , they, of course, are not discrete groups. Those who lie at the intersections face even greater economic challenges. For example African-American lesbians have the highest rates of poverty among same-sex couples, and the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that transgender people of color had an unemployment rate of four times the national average.

Understanding the diversity within the LGBT community is both the key to breaking down the myth of affluence and to beginning to understand where and how to combat LGBT poverty. It also points to a network of progressive collations, among women, people of color, the young and the old, parents, and LGBT people, who must all work together to fight poverty. Work focused on just one, or even a few, of these groups will not produce a solution that will work for any single group or that will address poverty as a whole.

Brad Sears is the Executive Director of the Roberta A. Conroy Scholar of Law and Policy and The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. Lee Badgett is the Research Director at The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law and the Professor of Economics & Director, Center for Public Policy & Administration University of Massachusetts Amherst Gordon Hall.

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