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March 27, 2009

Gay and lesbian couples are more likely to be poor, study finds

Boston--“The myth of gay and lesbian affluence is just that--a myth,” says a study published March 20 by the Williams Institute.

The study, titled “Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community” is not the first to challenge the myth of gay and lesbian affluence. But it is the most complete, and the first to use actual census data and other well-regarded studies to track family growth and health indicators.

It is also the first to analyze the causes and consequences of poverty among gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are as likely to be poor as are heterosexuals, while gay and lesbian couple households, after adjusting for the factors that help explain poverty, are more likely to be poor than married heterosexual couple households,” the study says.

“Further, poverty rates of children in gay and lesbian couple households are strikingly high,” it continues.

The Williams Institute is a think tank that studies sexual orientation law and policy, connected to the University of California Los Angeles Law School.

The perception of gay affluence was largely created in the 1990s by marketing companies seeking to cultivate gay commerce opportunities. With no census data available, the marketing researchers studied groups likely to be well off, like Human Rights Campaign membership lists, magazine subscribers and people who used gay travel agencies.

Though always suspect, those surveys were rarely challenged because the belief that gay and lesbian people had discretionary income to spend made it easier for groups and events like Pride festivals to find corporate sponsors. Some also believed that the perception bred political influence.

Anti-gay groups, however, have used the same information to say that LGBT people are not discriminated against and do not need to be protected.

Last May, Citizens for Community Values spokespersons David Miller and Barry Sheetz testified before the Ohio Senate that the Equal Housing and Employment Act was unnecessary because gays and lesbians are more likely to be employed than heterosexuals, have higher incomes, and are more likely to hold professional or management level jobs--exactly the perception the marketers created.

The Williams study concludes that among the factors contributing to poverty among gays and lesbians are “vulnerability to employment discrimination, lack of access to marriage, higher rates of being uninsured, less family support, or family conflict over coming out.”

The study found that gay and lesbian couple families are significantly more likely to be poor than are heterosexual married couple families; lesbian couples and their families are much more likely to be poor than heterosexual couples and their families; and children in gay and lesbian couple households have poverty rates twice those of children in heterosexual married couple households.

“Within the LGB population, several groups are much more likely to be poor than others. African American people in same-sex couples and same-sex couples who live in rural areas are much more likely to be poor than white or urban same-sex couples,” the findings continue.

The study also finds that gays and lesbians, especially with families, are more likely to receive government assistance than heterosexuals.

“In general, lesbian couples have much higher poverty rates than either different-sex couples or gay male couples. Lesbians who are 65 or older are twice as likely to be poor as heterosexual married couples,” the study found.

Children of same-sex couples are twice as likely to be poor as children of married couples, according to the study. One in five children under 18 living in a same-sex couple family is poor compared to one in ten in opposite-sex married couple households.

African-American same-sex couples, according to the Williams Institute, are significantly more likely to be poor than their married heterosexual counterparts and roughly three times more likely to live in poverty than white same-sex couples.

Gays and lesbians living in rural areas are twice as likely to live in poverty than those in metropolitan areas.

Across most characteristics, however, married heterosexual couples have higher poverty rates than do gay men in coupled households. The exceptions in which gay male poverty is higher include gay couples with a black partner, those with one partner out of the labor force, and those with children under the age of 18 in the household.

“Those living in lesbian-partnered families almost always have higher poverty rates than those in heterosexual married partnered families,” the study continues.

The authors conclude that “the misleading myth of affluence steers policymakers, community organizations, service providers, and the media away from fully understanding poverty among LGBT people or even imagining that poor LGBT people exist.”

The study recommends the promotion of policies and laws promoting equal pay for women and passage of laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

It also says more study of lesbian and gay people is needed with more attention paid to how lesbians and gays and their families actually live. This is especially important in the design of the social safety net and services, which often miss these people.

The authors also call for marriage equality, which brings economic benefits for couples.

“A cornerstone of current conservative poverty policy is ‘marriage promotion,’ ” the authors note. “This orientation is driven by a desire to reduce people’s use of public supports, as opposed to a goal of poverty reduction. The policy would best be called ‘heterosexual marriage promotion,’ as the irony of this policy is no doubt well understood by gay and lesbian families.”

The current study does not look at transgender people.

“Because no representative data exist for transgender people, the report does not analyze poverty in that community,” said the institute. “Previous Williams Institute studies, however, found that large proportions of transgender people report very low incomes, which suggest that poverty is also a major concern for transgender people.”




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