Pathways Into Poverty

Lived experiences among LGBTQ people
September 2020

This study explores common pathways into adult poverty among a diverse population of low-income LGBTQ people in Los Angeles and Kern counties in California. It is part of the Pathways to Justice Project.

  • Bianca D.M. Wilson
    Senior Scholar of Public Policy, Former
  • Alexandra-Grissell Gomez
    Project Coordinator, Former
  • Madin Sadat
    Project Coordinator, Former
  • Soon Kyu Choi
    Project Manager, Former
  • M.V. Lee Badgett
    Distinguished Scholar
Childhood poverty is a key pathway into adult poverty among LGBTQ people.
Race/ethnicity was a key factor in distinguishing who experienced childhood poverty.
Anti-LGBTQ family rejection, mental health issues, and substance use issues were common pathways for those not experiencing childhood poverty.
Data Points
of respondents reported economic insecurity as children

Watch the Pathways to LGBTQ Poverty video

Executive Summary

More than a decade of empirical research has shown that LGBT people in the United States experience poverty at higher rates compared to cisgender heterosexual people.1 More recently, research has also shown that transgender people and cisgender bisexual women experience the highest rates of economic insecurity.2 In response to this knowledge, numerous advocacy and direct services organizations have worked to identify public policies and interventions that can address the high rates of poverty among sexual and gender minority people. However, there is very little research to support any claims about why poverty is so prevalent among LGBT people. Without greater specification of the causes of poverty and the factors affecting the experience of poverty, policies and services may be using less effective mechanisms for alleviating economic insecurity.

In the interest of informing the ongoing dialogue about how sexual orientation and gender identity relate to poverty, we designed this study to document experiences with poverty, including factors leading to and maintaining economic insecurity among LGBTQ people. This report is one of several that will be developed from the data collected in the Pathways to Justice Project. The Pathways Project aimed to document updated figures on the national and state-by-state rates of LGBT poverty and explore the experiences and needs of LGBTQ adults living in poverty. As part of this project, we conducted in-person interviews with 93 LGBTQ people in Los Angeles County (n = 60) and Kern County (n = 33) with low incomes or other indicators of economic instability. These two counties represent urban and nonurban environments and thus allow an assessment of circumstances facing LGBTQ people in different kinds of communities.

Through this qualitative project, we aim to inform anti-poverty discourse and policy interventions by providing information about the range of experiences LGBTQ people have. The study addresses the following questions:

1. What does poverty look like for LGBTQ people?

2. What are LGBTQ peoples’ pathways into poverty?

3. How do SOGI subgroups differ in their experiences of poverty?

     a. What factors affecting the experience of poverty were most salient in the narratives of each subgroup?

     b. How are discrimination and prejudice, particularly anti-LGBT bias, related to economic instability?

The data presented here come from an analysis of transcripts from in-depth interviews, pre-interview questionnaires, and follow-up surveys with people who reported relatively low incomes (or other indicators of economic instability) and identified with labels that reflected a non-heterosexual or non-cisgender identity (herein, we collectively refer to as “LGBTQ”). The key characteristics of study participants were as follows:

  • 19-70 years, average age 39 years
  • 77% identified as people of color
  • 38% were transgender or gender nonbinary
  • 97% identified as a sexual minority (LGB or other identity, such as pansexual or queer)
  • 32% had a high school education or less
  • Most (70%) had annual household income of $20,000 or less
  • 61% were unstably housed in the past year

Key Findings

  • Childhood poverty is a key pathway into adult poverty among LGBTQ people.
    • 73% of the study participants reported examples of economic insecurity when they were children, including both minor (remembering parents talking about money being “tight”) and major indicators (parents experiencing homelessness or living in shelters when they were children, not having enough food at home, and their parents qualifying for social services and other benefits, such as medical and free or reduced-fee lunch programs).
    • Race/ethnicity was a key factor in distinguishing who in our sample experienced poverty as children and who did not. At least 80% of American Indian, Black, and Latinx respondents reported forms of economic insecurity as children, compared to approximately 50% of White and API respondents.
  • For those who did not report experiencing childhood poverty, other starting points of adult economic insecurity were as follows:
    • Anti-LGBT bias within families and employment settings;
    • Becoming a parent young without partner, familial, and/or community support;
    • Mental health issues; and
    • Substance use issues.
  • Eventually, all participants’ pathways converge into a constellation of interlocking factors and indicators of economic insecurity—lower educational attainment, low wage jobs, psychological stress, parenting challenges, multiple forms of structural and interpersonal oppression (anti- LGBT bias, racism, xenophobia, sexism), and/or barriers to adequate services.
  • Our extensive analyses of all of the interviews, individually and then by sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) subgroup (trans men, trans women, gender nonbinary, cisgender bisexual women, cisgender lesbian women, cisgender bisexual men, cisgender gay men), revealed the following:
    • Participants within every SOGI group experienced
      • One or more major indicators of economic insecurity, ranging from homelessness to food insecurity to low wages and underemployment
      • Core factors in the onset of economic insecurity, such as childhood poverty, mental health issues, and substance use
    • Some factors emerged as uniquely salient in one or more SOGI groups; others, such as anti-LGBT discrimination encountered as adults, affected a significant majority of participants across all subgroups.

Policy Implications

Economic insecurity is a very complex issue in the United States, with longstanding debates about its causes and potential solutions. Our study provides useful information for discussions about policies and services with regard to how SOGI matters in relationship to poverty. Our findings have implications for the areas of focus of anti-poverty policy advocates and service providers. The findings indicate that those working on the topic of poverty, but not currently focused on LGBTQ people, need to better integrate knowledge of how systemic oppression and interpersonal stigma along the lines of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation affect many people’s economic stability, and therefore overall well-being. That is, across urban and rural locations, and across most of the SOGI subgroups, experiences with anti-LGBT bias and discrimination were reported as major barriers to gaining economic security. At the same time, LGBT-focused advocates and services providers engaging in anti-poverty work need to further broaden how they identify what is and is not an LGBT issue, expanding to issues focused on experiences of children and families in poverty that do not yet have any LGBT people in them. This study finds that the children in those families, many of which are American Indian, African American and Latinx, are likely to be among the many adults we later see contributing to the high rates of poverty among LGBTQ adults.

The Pathways Project includes the largest qualitative dataset of interviews with LGBTQ people focused on their experiences with economic instability. The narratives from the LGBTQ people who shared their experiences with us will remain a significant resource for understanding what poverty looks like for this community—how people navigate it, what factors lead to it, and what barriers exist to getting out of poverty. Upcoming reports will focus on the role of rural and urban settings across all areas of poverty (housing, social services, food insecurity employment), the full range of factors affecting poverty across the sample (mental health, substance use, transportation issues), for understanding and service utilization.

We provide more information about the methods and analysis for this study in the full report and in a detailed description of the overall project methodology on our project website (

Download the full report

Download the executive summary in Spanish

Pathways Into Poverty

Choi, S. K., Badgett, M. V. L., & Wilson, B. D. M. (2019). State Profiles of LGBT Poverty in the United States. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute. Dec-2019.pdf. Badgett, M. V. L., Choi, S. K., & Wilson, B. D. M., (2019, October). LGBT Poverty in the United States: A study of differences between sexual orientation and gender identity groups. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute. https:// Carpenter, C. S., Eppink, S. T., & Gonzales, G. (2020). Transgender status, gender identity and socioeconomic outcomes in the United States. ILR Review, 73(3), 573–599. OGBP:-–702.

Badgett, M. V. L., Choi, S. K., & Wilson, B. D. M., (2019, October). LGBT Poverty in the United States: A study of differences between sexual orientation and gender identity groups. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.